How one woman is fighting the stigma against assistive devices

Liz Jackson — writer, advocate for equality, blogger behind The Girl with the Purple Cane, and all-around awesome human — describes her background as “very random.” As she tells it, she grew up in Ohio, then moved to Los Angeles after graduating with a degree in TV production. There, Jackson quickly became second assistant to Ellen Degeneres (for five seasons!), before moving to New York with her partner, Megan, to work on The Martha Stewart Show. Soon realizing television wasn’t a good fit, she left to try her hand at something else.

“And then I got sick,” Jackson tells HelloGiggles.

Jackson was working at Airbnb when she was diagnosed with idiopathic neuropathy: Nerve damage that interferes with the peripheral nervous system without a determined cause. According to PubMed, the disorder affects approximately 5-8 million Americans, and a third of people with neuropathy — yet it’s not something we hear about very often, especially given how common it is. Jackson learned that she would need glasses to help ease her migraines and a cane to help with balance. She tried to continue working — but after some back and forth, she eventually decided to go on disability. (It’s her 2015 goal to get off of it.)

“It was very frustrating, because I felt that I was a person of value, but I just needed to sort of take a step back and figure out how to fit chronic illness into my life,” she tells HelloGiggles.

It was around this time that Jackson started her super awesome blog, The Girl with the Purple Cane. (Its tagline: “My body is a lemon. I’m making lemonade.”) Unsurprisingly, the site is as smart, humorous, and “very random” as Jackson herself. It includes everything from personal stories, to whip-smart critiques on everyday ableism, to features that spotlight people doing cool things to help ease the stigma of assistive devices — and it’s all kinds of amazing.

“I had found this purple cane, and it had sort of changed my perception on having to use a cane,” she says. “I liked ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ I liked how tough she was and I sort of felt that it had that same beat.”

“In a way, it sort of became like an alter-ego,” she continues. “It was a way for me to kind of broach self-discovery — not to reinvent myself, but to understand myself given the new circumstances that I was dealing with.”

Jackson originally didn’t think that she would be interested in the stigma of assistive devices — but now, she says it is something she thinks about constantly, and that it has quickly become her life’s passion. In 2014, she launched “Yes J. Crew Cane,” a campaign encouraging the fashion retailer to begin selling stylish assistive devices through its “In Good Company” section. The idea first came to Jackson when she was shopping at J. Crew (her favorite store), and realized that one of their t-shirts perfectly matched her cane. She couldn’t help but wonder: What if J. Crew came out with seasonal colors for assistive devices, as well as for clothing? The store already carried eyeglasses, which require being taken to an optometrist to have a prescription put in — so why not a cane?

The main problem, Jackson says, was deceivingly complex: “How do you get an ugly product in a beautiful store?”

Jackson began to make some calls. At first, she tried customer service, where she was given a quick (but polite) “not at this time.” But Jackson wasn’t dissuaded, and continued to reach out to them via email and open letters on social media.

After some encouragement from a friend, Jackson eventually decided to give CEO Mickey Drexler a call. She received his voicemail, and decided to follow up the next day. Again, she received his voicemail — but this time, the unexpected happened: She got a call back.

“They had gone from saying no, to not saying yes,” she says — a big step in the right direction.

While it may seem like a small victory, even the tiniest wins are essential when it comes to making stylish options more accessible for all — and we can think of few things as important as working towards destigmatizing disability. When asked if there are other brands doing awesome things to help fight the stigma against those who are differently-abled, Jackson can only think of a handful: Under Armour for its one-handed zipper, NPR for posting transcripts of its content, and Japanese designer Takafumi Tsuruta for all of his clothes. But overall, she says that inclusion is still severely lacking.

“That’s what I like to tell J. Crew: You could be the first,” Jackson says. “It’s my belief if you make a product for someone with a differing ability, and it really does benefit society at large. For me, it has yet to be proven that if you make something with inclusion in mind that it will backfire.”

Based on last season’s runways, it seems like the notoriously narrow-minded fashion industry is finally beginning to broaden its horizons when it comes to diversity — but we still have a long way to go. While at first, Jackson was happy to see that the runways were becoming more inclusive, she became dismayed when she realized that the differently-abled models were stuck wearing completely impractical clothing. (In particular, one model who used a wheelchair wore a dress that Jackson says would have immediately gotten caught in the spokes.)

“It seems they’ve overlooked the greatest part of hiring models with disabilities, and that is showing what they could have,” she says. “You can use all the models with disabilities that you want, but let it be purposeful.”

“For me, the goal is to show that inclusion is a business model, that it makes business sense — not that it’s a kind thing to do or the right thing to do. Because companies aren’t interested in that,” she continues. “I want to show that it’s a money-making venture and that it doesn’t stigmatize the company.”

We couldn’t be happier that Jackson is fighting the stigma in such a badass way.

You can check out The Girl with the Purple Cane right here, find out more about Yes J. Crew Cane here, and sign the petition here.

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(Images via Liz Jackson.)