This designer is championing inclusivity for people with disabilities

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This designer is championing inclusivity for people with disabilities

UAE-based Asiya Rafiq is doing this through her newly-launched modest fashion label


Janice Rodrigues

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Published: Fri 10 May 2019, 3:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 May 2019, 11:17 AM

The world of fashion has truly grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades. From sustainable fashion to breastfeeding friendly labels to plus size brands, the industry is constantly being revolutionized to be kinder and more inclusive of its audience. However, there is a certain section that often gets left behind in this glamorous world - people of determination seldom have brands that cater to them, and usually rely on clothes that may hinder them. It's something Asiya Rafiq noticed when she volunteered last year to work with the Special Olympics World Games 2019.

"My work involved helping people of determination. I remember this one instance when a young man wanted to go for prayers but was having trouble with his shoelaces. He finally asked me for help and I obliged," she says. "But from then on, it opened my eyes to the fact that small things, such as being unable to untie laces, can go a long way towards making someone feel helpless or frustrated. I wanted to do something that could make life easier for him - and for people like him."

Luckily, there was something she could do to help. Hailing from Kashmir, India, and raised by a single mother, Asiya was always sensitive to the plight of others, going so far as to celebrate a birthday in an orphanage in the past. Another passion happened to be for clothes. "In Kashmir, there is a beautiful culture of handmade fabrics and embroidery. I grew up in Delhi, but I used to see my grandmother and relatives wear it and was fascinated. I was studying then, and didn't have the money to start my own brand, so I would design clothes for friends' boutiques."
Asiya moved to Abu Dhabi six years ago, after getting married, but it wasn't until the Special Olympics World Games this year that she realised how her two passions could come together. Volunteering for the event made her realise it wasn't just laces that people of determination had trouble with - removal of undergarments could be difficult; women in wheelchairs had issues with the abaya getting stuck in the wheels. "I already had the experience of designing clothes and wanted to do something that could benefit others," she says. "It all just happened to come together!"

Determined to properly understand the needs of people of determination, Asiya applied for an Applied Behaviour Analysis course from the Applied Behavioral Training Institute in Dubai. The course, aimed to help people become efficient educators and support assistants for those with developmental disabilities, helped her gather further knowledge which she used to set up Asiya Rafiq - a modest womenswear label made for women with disabilities.

"Of course, these clothes are not limited only to people of determination. Any woman can wear them," she says, adding that a brand only for people of determination can find itself in too small a market. But, through the use of zippers, velcro and magnetic buttons, they go a long way towards helping people who use wheelchairs or those with Parkinson's Disease dress themselves. All that while helping people of determination look and feel good. "It's a simple way to give them independence and dignity," explains Asiya. "It also makes life easier for their caretakers. A lot of the time, it is the family that look after people with disabilities, and they are human too, and may feel embarrassed dressing others."
The Asiya Rafiq brand was launched at the Dubai Modest Fashion Week 2019 held in March, and saw models wearing chic, conservative and comfortable clothes take to the ramp holding signs promoting inclusivity. As anyone can guess, it was quite the hit. "I wanted to prove that these clothes can be worn by anyone - whether you are a runway model or a person of determination. It was important to me that my brand is inclusive to all as that gives people with different body shapes the chance to wear designer clothing and celebrate themselves," says Asiya.

ON THE RUNWAY: Asiya Rafiq (centre, wearing black) alongside models showcasing her collection at Dubai Modest Fashion Week held in March 2019
Her clothing is currently for women although Asiya hopes she can expand to menswear in the future. Besides the collection, Asiya also meets private clients to create customised clothing for women and children. In these cases, Asiya keeps in mind that families with people of determination often have high medical bills, and keeps her costs flexible.

"Sometimes, people have very specific requirements according to their condition," explains Asiya. "In these cases, I'm usually contacted by a relative and take time out to meet the client personally and understand how to design something that will make their lives easier. That's actually the best part of my job - seeing that a product I have designed is useful for a person who has been struggling with clothing in the past."

With some estimates suggesting that 50 million people with disabilities reside in the Middle East, this is definitely a step in the right direction. While last year has seen some brands launch clothes for people of determination, with Asiya's creations being conservative and chic, it's just apt for the region.
"My ultimate goal is to help more people of determination. I want my clothes to reach all those who have real problems day in and day out," says Asiya. Well, it certainly looks like an achievable dream from a designer who is just getting started.

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