The beauty industry might actually be catching up on accessibility

Most products aren't disability-friendly — but these advocates are making change happen.

Lais Borges/Mic; Getty Images; Guide Beauty
Disability rights
Originally Published: 

In high school, I used to wake up at the crack of dawn to put on makeup, desperate to fit in with the other girls in my class. Every morning, I spent close to 45 minutes battling my shaky, cerebral palsy hands to apply eyeliner and mascara without poking my eyes out — and every morning, I went through a handful of makeup remover wipes each day to fix my outrageous squiggly work. Unfortunately, I was a perfectionist with imperfect dexterity.

Over time, I’ve become adept at applying makeup — my routine is down to 10 to 15 minutes — but I never should have had to bear the burden of injury and tedium to carry out a task that’s relatively pain-free for so much of the population. And regardless of why I did or didn’t want to wear makeup, my choices shouldn’t have been to do so at the expense of my time and pain tolerance, or skip it altogether.

If I say “face creams,” your mind might go to applying your favorite brand. But a person with arthritis in their hands might imagine struggling for hours to remove a lid. The $500 billion beauty industry is full of products that have largely been made with only able-bodied consumers in mind, ignoring the fact that people with disabilities have unique needs when it comes to beauty and personal care. Most of these needs revolve around seemingly simple modifications to meet reduced mobility and dexterity.

“Having Parkinson’s gave me a unique perspective as both a professional makeup artist and as someone who knows what it feels like to struggle,” Terri Bryant, a celebrity makeup artist who founded Guide Beauty in 2020 following her Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, tells Mic. The brand, which counts actor Selma Blair as chief creative officer, sells makeup and tools designed to literally help guide your hand during application. "I find traditional tools and pencils often are not designed [to facilitate] a comfortable grip or a steady hand. This makes it challenging to get control when applying eyeliner, filling in brows, and other makeup techniques that require a high level of precision and fine motor skills.”

Regardless of how far I've come personally, I can’t overstate how beneficial accessible beauty products like eyeliner stamps and auto-stabilizing eye shadow brushes would have been during those early morning makeup sessions — they’re certainly my Holy Grails now. But while there have been some efforts to address needs in particular areas, a wholesale revolution still seems beyond the horizon.

Ali Knight realized as much before founding TINA Healthcare, which is preparing to launch a tampon insertion aid. “We found out that [the tampon] hadn't been redesigned in 90 years,” she tells Mic. “The actual tampon applicator, the telescoping applicator that houses the cotton was designed and patented by someone without a uterus 90 years ago. And it hasn't changed since. … Find me another device, another piece of hardware, that hasn't been redesigned in the last month.”

Listen, I get that it isn't necessarily easy for the beauty and personal care industries to meet the specific needs of disabled people. But that’s not for lack of engineering and innovation smarts. Rather, it’s because most brands started with the idea of a non-disabled customer and built massive production lines to address the needs of that single type of person. Building accessibility into beauty and fashion would require dedicated creative teams, new production methods, and new machinery.

“There has long been a misconception that you either create products for those that are ‘able-bodied’ or for some niche market with a specific disability and physical limitation. These are not mutually exclusive.” -Terri Bryant

So yes, it would be expensive for these companies to create separate products that cater specifically to disabled customers — but the thing is, they don’t need to. “When it comes to makeup and different abilities, there has long been a misconception that you either create products for those that are ‘able-bodied’ or for some niche market with a specific disability and physical limitation,” Bryant says. “These are not mutually exclusive.”

Enter: Universal Design, the process of creating products and environments inclusive of as many people as possible. “When you create through an inclusive lens, following the principles of Universal Design, you consider and account for the greater needs and challenges, enhancing the experience for everyone,” Bryant says. “The ultimate goal is not accommodation, but inclusion: A beautiful, high-performing product that can be enjoyed by and meets users' needs across the widest range of skill sets, abilities, and needs.”

Not only does the universal design approach include everyone, but in most cases, I believe it would help everyone — even those who don’t think the things they use every day need improvements. I’m confident we’d all benefit from a world in which beauty products didn’t require us to have Rembrandt-level skills and lotion containers are easier to open. “When you think about accessibility, you just make something that is better,” Knight says, “because it requires an intention, and the thoughtfulness and attention to detail that don’t get put into a lot of the products that are made today. … Designing for extreme abilities can create products that are better for everyone.”

The upside: While accessible products aren’t yet dominating the shelves of pharmacies and beauty stores, it does feel like the tide is turning — in large part thanks to disabled individuals speaking out. One such individual, disability rights activist and self-esteem coach Xian Horn, is currently working with three beauty brands to develop accessible product designs and ensure their websites are as accessible as possible. While Horn, who has cerebral palsy, can’t disclose the brand names due to NDAs, she did share that the companies approached her after she penned a 2021 piece for Allure on disability representation in beauty ads. Inspiring such change hasn’t been an easy process. In fact, that essay was published more than 10 years after Horn created a brief video encouraging Dove to include people with disabilities in its “campaign for real beauty.”

“The beauty industry has presented a conundrum, because beauty is supposed to be aspirational. And it is my goal [for] all of us to see disability as aspirational.” -Xian Horn

The video, which was only intended for Dove executives, went viral (at least, by 2010’s standards), and the fact that it reached such a large audience gave Horn hope. “It told me there was something deeper, more universal happening — and that people understood that [disability representation] was the right thing,” she says. “I think the beauty industry has struggled with how to think [about] the disability community. The beauty industry has presented a conundrum, because beauty is supposed to be aspirational. And it is my goal [for] all of us to see disability as aspirational.”

Looking back, “I'm much more hopeful today [about disability inclusion in the beauty industry] than 10 years ago,” Horn says, adding she believes that this revolution is inevitable, considering the mighty size of the disability community. She’s probably right: There hasn’t been a more hopeful and exciting time for authentic disability representation in the beauty industry than today. There has never before been a time when as many accessible beauty and personal care products have been out on the market as there are now. In the past few years alone, brands like Herbal Essences and L’Occitane added Braille to their packaging, Degree released the “world’s first” deodorant designed for disabled people, and Olay introduced an “Easy Open Lid,” among other successes.

“I'm most proud to see people with disabilities using their voices, whether in blogs, YouTube, or what have you, and using our own voices to shift the culture around beauty standards,” Horn says. “I don't just want to see us represented, but I would love to see us be as represented as empowered and fierce women, men, all gender identities.”

We still have a ways to go before accessible beauty products are readily available when you walk into any ordinary store, but that reality feels more within reach than it ever has been before. “While still a work in progress, the beauty industry is talking more about diversity and inclusion,” Bryant says. “We’re recognizing that there are people who have life experiences that may differ from our own. Most importantly, we’re valuing our different life experiences and leveraging them to create products and techniques that allow us to share our love of makeup. When that occurs, our community grows and so do our connections.”