Episode title and number: Featuring Sassy Outwater of Acsexyble Runway #8
Brief summary of the show:
"And so I started the Acsexyble Runway and said, let's have a place for people with disabilities to come together and talk about their fashion challenges and help each other. It's all about putting your experience out there asking questions, giving answers, and supporting each other to figure this whole thing out. It's very much built on the Disability Justice framework of supporting each other because the abled world isn't making space for that." ~Sassy Outwater
Bullet points of key topics & timestamps:
0:43 | Physical Appearance & Beauty
4:14 | Introducing Sassy Outwater
7:12 | Importance of Peer Support
9:21 | About Acsexyble Runway
12:33 | Trends/Topics Discussed In Acsexyble Runway
16:11 | Disability-Related Hiring Practices
19:57 | Body Shaming
22:03 | "You're So Pretty To Be Blind"
24:04 | Autonomy
27:47 | What Beauty Means To Sassy
29:16 | Sassy's Socials
Contact information & social media handles to connect with Sassy Outwater:
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Music Credit: “New Inspiration” by BasspartoutX https://audiojungle.net/item/new-inspiration/7204018
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Welcome back to another episode of Bold Blind Beauty On A.I.R. Bold Blind Beauty On A.I.R. is clearing the air for more A.I.R.: Accessibility, Inclusion, and Representation. I'm Stephanae McCoy.
I'm Nasreen Bhutta. And I'm Sylvia Stinson-Perez. And we're your co-hosts.
Physical appearance and beauty. Recently, we have noticed a lot of discussion in podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups about appearance for women who are blind. You know, this is not a new topic.
And the sad part is that women sometimes come around and say, when it comes to beauty and makeup and appearance, they will say, "I can't see myself in the mirror anymore. So why apply makeup? Why bother with it? And why should it even matter?" Or "I used to put this on before and now it's so hard for me to apply makeup? Or where do I put my blush again? How do I put mascara on now that I'm blind, it's really difficult to navigate my own face."
And what they tend to forget is that physical appearance does matter. And I'm so happy to hear that women out there are starting to finally talk about it in the blind community because it's important. It's very important. People look at our appearance first, when they meet us on the street. When we apply for interviews when we are talking on you know, these zoom calls these days.
And unfortunately, whether we like it or not, a little bit of judgment is made by appearance when people see us "Oh, she's nice-looking, Oh, nice hair." But when they see people who are blind and don't approach or try to put on makeup or have their appearance put together that sort of comment changes to more of a negative. It's more like "oh, well, they can't see themselves. They don't know how to do it or for them or what do you expect?"
And those are the type of comments and stereotypes that we need to shatter. Because beauty is important. It does matter. Your appearance is you it's a reflection of who you are. Your statement, your personal brand statement of who you are, and how you want to project yourself to the outer world. And I want to ask Steph our founder what she thinks about beauty.
Thanks, Nasreen. Well, you know, Bold Blind Beauty was founded to Empower women who are blind or who have low vision, to Embrace their beauty, to Increase their confidence, Claim their power, and to Boldly break barriers.
Beauty to us goes beyond physical beauty, but it certainly includes it. Our tagline Real Beauty Transcends Barriers means several things, but at its essence, it means authenticity. It means acknowledging the value of a person, regardless of anything that might set them apart from others. Real beauty is inclusive. It accepts and embraces people where they are as they are. Authenticity begins with being self-aware. It's when how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we want others to see us, are in alignment.
For those of us who are on the blindness spectrum, being able to reach down deep inside, who we are, and giving ourselves permission to shine in whatever way that might be is strength. We believe that real beauty is not easy, but it's powerful. And once we are able to fully embrace ourselves for who we are, we are liberated from the tyranny of others' definitions of us.
Steph that is beautiful.
Incredibly powerful Steph.
Our guest today is Sassy Outwater-Wright. And she's the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). She's also CEO at Acsexyble and the founder of the Facebook group Acsexyble Runway where Style Meets Accessibility and she is a passionate digital advocator. And in this episode of Bold Blind Beauty On A.I.R., our discussion will focus on fashion, physical appearance, and beauty within the disability community. We hope you enjoy this conversation over to Sassy, Sylvia, and Steph.
So Sassy, would you mind sharing with us your sight loss journey?
Sassy Outwater 5:00
Yeah, I went blind at age three. I had a very rare childhood cancer of the retinas called retinal blastoma. And after several years of treatment, my parents, the tumors were spreading, and my parents had no choice but to remove my eyes. And at the time that it happened, it was a hard thing for my family to go through. But luckily, I have a superhero for a mom.
Um, and she did an amazing job of learning what she needed to do to support a blind child. And then learned what she needed to do to step out of the way to let me do my own explorations and jump off the cliff and see if I could fly. And I did. So I'm very lucky. And it was a pretty early-onset thing. But then, ironically, when I became an adult, I wound up working with people who are losing their sight later in life. And going through that transition on the older age spectrum.
Like you Sassy I work a lot with the older population. And I think though some of those lessons we learned as young people who lost our vision is we bring that resilience, I think, to the table and that problem-solving. And I think we can show them that anything is possible with the right attitude and skills. So that's awesome.
I can attest to that. I lost my sight later in life, I was in my mid-40s. And I was just so upset and distraught. And it's like, oh, my life is over. What am I going to do, you know, I was working and all these different things I had going on in my life.
And it wasn't until I immersed myself within the blind community and began engaging with other blind people, that I was able to see that not only could I continue to survive, I would also thrive. Because all of the people that I encountered were sort of like you and Sylvia. And just were very encouraging and just helped me through that process. So I appreciate the work that both of you do.
Thank you, I appreciate that. I really strongly believe in peer support. And the idea that being around other blind people who are who have been through it and adjusted well, or who are with you, going through the missteps, going through the exploration, going through the discovery, and going through the trauma. I'm just gonna straight up use the word trauma because adjustment to disability is traumatic.
But I think that you know, having those alignment experiences of seeing somebody go through what you're going through and reflect that at you helps you to discern what you want to do. In terms of adjustment and the attitude that you want to take and the exploration that you're willing to take and the risks that you're willing to explore.
There is a lot that the academic rehabilitative side can do for you and support you in, such as licensed instructors and such. But there's so much that lived experience does that, you know, you can have rehabilitation professionals and that's a critical part of the adjustment process. But the lived experience, and reflection, and peer support pieces is critical to going from that just I'm coping with loss of my eyesight to I'm thriving with it, and I'm doing what I want to do with it.
For my day job, I run the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). And my working mission for running that organization is there's no one right way to do blindness, there's your way of adjusting to that. And we're here just to support you in figuring out what that is and learning how to do it.
I wholeheartedly agree with you Sassy, and I was super excited when you... You are such an advocate, and so I always enjoy following you on social media. Just the way you advocate and just with such strength and wisdom. And so recently started the Accessible Runway Facebook group. So tell us why what's your mission? What's your goal with that? Because I know it goes right along with this peer support thing.
So it's actually called Acsexyble Runway. My company that I run outside of MABVI, which is kind of my private consulting work and brand work is called Acsexyble and it's a play on the word accessible but it's to say that accessibility can have something to do with sexy. It can have something to do with fashion, it can have something to do with healthcare.
I go in and I do what I call generative discomfort digital accessibility. Meaning that I want to sit in a place where people are uncomfortable with the topics and the brands and the places where accessibility is happening, but that's why I'm there. They need to happen in the places that the traditional digital accessibility community doesn't go, such as lingerie stores, healthcare clinics, patient portals (without legal mandate), the areas where you don't traditionally see a lot of accessibility.
You get that classic thing of "well have an abled person do it for you." And I'm about the 'No' on that one. So my company for about 13 years has gone in and gone to the spaces where people don't put digital accessibility as a top priority thing. A lot of small business work a lot of work on style and fashion.
And on the other side, I do a lot of looking at the disability community and what we're facing in terms of challenges to find a space to do something. And so just on volunteer time, I run several social media groups around various topics.
I have one on sexuality, and relationships and dating, and all of that side of life when you have a disability, and you are of a marginalized gender. And then I have one on just kitchen accessibility cooking and the difficulties with finding accessible tools to use in the kitchen. And finding accessible recipes to use and the fun that you can have when you're cooking with disability. And then the third now kind of thing that I'm really jumping into is seeing just how much everybody was struggling to deal with fashion concerns during COVID.
Online shopping; people who had never really done it before, were forced to start looking at what that would be like. And then returning to the workforce in person, or coming back out of COVID, I saw a lot of people on social media expressing concern about "well, what's in style now? I can't go in and touch clothing," or "I don't want to go in to touch clothing, what do I do?"
And so I started the Acsexyble Runway and said, let's have a place for people with disabilities to come together and talk about their fashion challenges and help each other. I do a lot in terms of fashion and style but I am no means by no means the expert. I'm just a person with some experience.
And so I wanted to say let's help each other figure this out. Everybody in this group has different expertise, different experiences. And so the one kind of caveat in this group is share from your own experience, do what you came there to do get what you need, and share what you know.
And so it's all about putting your experience out there asking questions, giving answers, and supporting each other to figure this whole thing out. It's very much built on the Disability Justice framework of supporting each other because the abled world isn't making space for that.
That is powerful. What are some of the major trends and topics within the group? Or what are some of the major accessibility concerns of women who are living with vision loss? And they're really what are they really concerned about today?
So surprisingly, they align very much with what I see come up in regular fashion and body image and style groups. You would think that the questions would be very different. They're not.
They're very much focused on does this makeup style work? You know, what kinds of clothing should I wear for x event? Or how do I find the right fit for x piece of clothing, or I'm struggling to know what color works for me. And these are just as prevalent in the abled community.
And the nice thing about the community is the group the Acsexyble Runway is that you can have any disability and join that group. And you don't necessarily need to identify your disability, it can help. But you don't necessarily need to identify your disability, you just need to identify what accommodations you need in terms of accessing something. And then the group answers back the group works with the details that you give and answers back.
And you can continue to refine your question and get the specific help you need. But you don't always know what somebody's disability is when they ask a question in there, you just know that they need support to access what they're saying they need access. And so they tend to just be regular fashion questions.
Fashion is mystifying to anybody disabled or not. And you see a lot of people just asking questions for general guidance because they're not sure. And that happens in the regular groups too more than you might think until you're in this space and watching both sides and then you see this alignment.
The problem is that the answers that you would give to somebody who can see or can sign or can walk are going to be very different than the answers that you would give to somebody who is blind or who is deaf or who is a wheelchair user. You know, when I'm answering a blind person's question about online shopping, the first thing I have to say is well as the shipping and returns policy accessible to you can you get to a mailbox to drop that off if you don't like the fit of the product?
Or how accessible is the return label process? You know when you can't see the image of the product on the website and all you have to go by is a few words description, you don't always know what you're buying. And so when it shows up at your doorstep, you have to decide is this something I want to keep or send back? And if you want to send it back, is it something where you have to pay a lot of money to trek it using an Uber to get to a store to drop it off? Or is it something that you just flip a sticky label off of a thing and tape it to the box and put it outside your door and schedule a pickup?
And so when I advise companies on disability branding, this is a lot of the stuff that I have to bring up. Are your policies, not just your website? But are your policies and procedures accessible? It's more than your built environment? It's more than your digital accessibility? Are you unaccessible business in your policies too?
Yes, one of the questions I ask when I talk to businesses is how many people with disabilities do they hire? And are they within every level of the company? And you really can't say that you're inclusive or diverse if you're not fully inclusive, and that means hiring all types of people, disabilities included. Disabilities always seem left out, you know, when we're talking about diversity and inclusion.
We really don't see a lot of people with disabilities in the health and wellness, the fashion industry, the style industry. And/or we see people with nonapparent disabilities in that field but we don't know that they're disabled because they don't disclose. The stigma attached to disability in that space is pretty high.
And so you don't often... It's starting to shift, you're starting to see companies like Open Style Lab and adaptive clothing lines, you know. But a lot of times when I talk to even adaptive clothing designers, I have to say, are you an ally to persons with disabilities? Or are you a disabled person yourself? And the number of people who are allies is pretty high. And the number of actual disabled designers is pretty low.
And then you'll also see the number of marketing representatives and business owners is extremely low. And so a lot of this has to do with branding, messaging marketing being done by abled people who are trying to imagine what a disabled customer might want to interact with, rather than just getting that direct lived experience expertise. And you can contract with any number of disability branding services like mine. But if you don't have that direct lived experience input on the ground, in your company itself, you're a step away from the problem. You're still missing the target, you're not on a bull's eye there.
So inclusive hiring practices is step one, thing one. But when you're dealing with small businesses... Now oftentimes, fashion designers (unless you're a big brand name), they're a small outfit. They're the artist and a couple of designers or, you know, if you're a store owner, yeah, you have the huge chain brands and stores.
But a lot of what you see be the become the most accessible shopping places are smaller boutiques, websites that are small businesses. And it's very hard for them to hire inclusively because they might have a staff of five. But I still say squarely to them, all of us become disabled to some degree at some point in our lives, whether it's temporary or permanent. We all identify with being sick, we all identify with, with having something that in some way changes how our body functions, short term or long term. So where and how are you putting that information and that experience into your business practices?
You mentioned on the Facebook group, how it really is, people are the things are talking about the questions they're asking are just a question that we all have. And I think that what I love about it is that people feel comfortable asking some questions that are kind of personal and you might not just go ask in the store, you know.
But what I also love is that there's this feeling... And this is a thing that I think is happening now anyway, is that more authentic, we're all feeling like we can be more authentic. We can find our own style and live that out. And I think there's, there's starting to be more support for that more encouragement of that.
And I think it's just so important for people to know that even if you are blind, you can be incredibly fashionable and stylish. And an important thing for the sighted world to know is that we care about this, we do. Most of us really care about how we look and we don't want you to think we don't care. And if you know we care about that then help us to make sure that we can access those products.
So a lot of people disabled or not experience body shaming. Which is being shamed away from your idea of fashion or style, or comfort or trend, whatever the situation is. The society that we live in will shame toward conformance to a generalized expectation of what you should look like. Depending on who you are, where you live, what you do, etc.
And disabled people. What people don't generally realize is that those of us with disabilities have a different level of body shaming that we experience. I have been in so many talks where the rehabilitation professional or the professional on the other end of the conference call or in the presentation is shocked, defensive, angry, confrontational, that I'm teaching about style to a bunch of blind people or disabled people. And tells me I shouldn't be teaching them that.
And the first word there is 'them,' which always gets my hackles up. We're not of them. We're not those people. We're people. And disability, as I just said, is intersectional. It goes across every other demographic there is. It doesn't pick it doesn't choose, it doesn't discriminate. And so fashion and style and things that every human body needs to access shouldn't discriminate, either.
But we are often seen as "Oh, just wear neutrals, don't do your makeup, it might make a mess." I've been that person. I've gone out with my makeup done wrong because I couldn't look at it and have you know a friend tap me on the shoulder and go "You look like you're a football player. You got your eyeshadow on your cheeks and purple. You look you know you you've got some mascara somewhere that it shouldn't be. I've made those mistakes. But that's the beautiful part of being a human being. We all make mistakes.
I've always told everyone around me is you must tell me if I do that. It is your responsibility to tell me because if I don't know, I don't know. You know Sassy, one of the things and I'm sure you've experienced this. I know many women who are blind experienced this.
"You're so pretty!" Like and with a shock in their voice.
Oh, god, uh-huh.
Like how can you be blind and pretty?
Yeah, like, I've literally had people in front of me say "she's not blind, she's faking it, because she can't dress like that and be blind," you know, or "she can't do that." Or I've had a president of a blindness agency, tap me on the shoulder at an evening event where everybody is black tie. And I'm not in anything inappropriate, I'm in a very conservative, nice evening dress.
And he taps me on the shoulder and says "you can't be here like that. Our donors don't appreciate that." I'm like, 'what do you want me to show up as you know, a charity case for you?' No! If I walk in heels and a beautiful dress and perfectly matched and my hair done and my makeup done nails, hair, hips, heels? Thank you RuPaul I love you. Um, excuse me, but I'm gonna walk in totally in possession of who I am and where I want to be. And there is no organization or charity appeal or anything that should push me away from being who I am. That is discrimination and harm.
Not only that, but I would wonder about the donors. I mean, if you have that kind of, philosophy, you've got some issues.
You've got some issues. Yes.
We want them to see us as 'we're just their peers.' And that is when we're showing we're their peers is when we can be fashionable and stylish and have our makeup and our hair and all of that put they just have ourselves put together. And it is shocking when people go, "how do you put your makeup on?" Or "how do you do your own hair?" And we can do all of that we can do it. And we want the world to know and accept we can. And make it easy for us.
Yeah, we want to change the blindness rehabilitation agencies and the models that are used. So that when a blind person does these things, accesses fashion and, this goes across disability when a disabled person accesses fashion on their terms. We don't look at that as a shocking thing.
We're like of course we teach that from day one. From the jump, we teach this. We want people to feel comfortable accessing this. We want people to feel entitled to access this and supported to access this and that you are not a donor's example. You're a donor's peer, I love that phrase Sylvia.
You are a donor's peer, you are a donor's equal in every respect. They're just providing money to remove accessibility barriers that you face that the society we live in created. They're not helping the poor, blind person, or disabled person, they're removing a barrier, the money needs to go to remove barriers. And we need to be seen as perfectly in possession of our own bodies and able to decide what happens to them and what we want to happen to them. That's our autonomy. That's our sovereignty. And that's our business, not anybody else's.
Yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly. And I think the biggest barrier that we face are the misconceptions that people have about us. You know, they prefer to think of us as you know, the poor blind person sitting on the street corner with a tin cup collecting coin.
Seriously, that's what it boils down to is the misconceptions. And it's one of the reasons why Bold Blind Beauty, our mission is to "improve humanity by changing the way we perceive one another." It's very broad, but it's very broad intentionally because we have to stop looking at people projecting what we think a person should be, because of the package they come in, as opposed to just like you said, letting them be who they are.
It doesn't matter what size you are, what race you are, what disability you have, what gender you are, you are you and you do you. And you need to have the support and access to define yourself for yourself to yourself.
I love the phrase from Jamie Knight, the disability rights activist and accessibility expert in the UK. Jamie says "autonomy is me serving myself as myself and for myself." And my way of kind of saying that in the Acsexyble Runway is do what you came here to do take care of yourself. You know, put your autonomy first here. And that's how we change this is by exercising autonomy and saying to the world, we're going to do fashion and style and body and health and wellness on our terms, and at our discretion. And we're going to say we want accessibility support in that area.
Then your job is to get behind us and support us as we define what that looks like for ourselves, each of us on our own. But we come together to support each other in doing that. So even to sitting there asking a question in that group is a form of advocacy because you're deciding what works for you and what doesn't and refining what you want your experience to feel like. And then you can say to the broader world "Here's how you can help me access this more readily."
Awesome. So Sassy, how would you define beauty?
Beauty to me is, back to that term generative discomfort, beauty to me is watching somebody change their mind, open their mind, explore a new concept, try on something and find they love it. Try on a relationship find they love it. Fall in love, date, try a new experience, step out for the first time with a mobility tool in their hand, explore.
Beauty to me is that experience of I can. Beauty to me is that experience of I do, I want, I have. Beauty to me is in the mind and the perception of opportunity rather than feeling pulled away from it. Beauty to me is that comfort you you feel in your body when you are in the perfect outfit for the thing you're about to go do. And you feel confident and proud and happy in your own skin. And you don't even need to look in the mirror to know you look like that. You are awesome. You are in power, in charge. And that, to me is beauty.
Beauty is power. Beauty is perception. And beauty is that confidence of knowing that you have found what you want out of an experience and then open to receiving that.
Confidence, power, yes. How would people go about finding you online if they want to follow you?
My Facebook is probably the easiest place to find me or the place that I'm hanging out most these days. Which is paws like dog paws, PawsitivelySassy. My Twitter is SassyOutwater O-U-T-water and Sassy is just S-A-S-S-Y like the word. And the group can be found on Facebook under Acsexyble Runway. You can ask me for an invitation you can ask another group member for an invitation. We can post links to it.
And from there if you want to learn more about the work that I do just ask. I'm pretty approachable just ask. I do ask that people just put a comment up to me on one of my posts or just reach out to me via Twitter. I don't often check messages in messenger, so that's not the quickest way to reach me. But Facebook or Twitter is pretty easy to reach me and asked me for more information on anything.
This has been really awesome, thank you!
Thank you so much for having me. It's important to talk about this stuff and it's important to have a space to talk about it. So I'm grateful that you hold the podcast and you hold a space for this. That's huge.
Please share this and ask your friends to subscribe and follow us and enjoy and join us for our next podcast. Bold Blind Beauty On A.I.R. Thanks for listening everyone.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai