Episode 21: There is Always a Way Forward: Pioneer and Fashion Designer, Mindy Scheier

about the episode

Mindy's Headshot

Before founding Runway of Dreams Foundation (RoDF) in 2014, Mindy Scheier spent 20 years working in fashion on the design team for the INC collection and as a stylist for Saks Fifth Avenue.

Mindy was inspired to start RoDF after her son Oliver, who has Muscular Dystrophy, dreamed of wearing jeans like everyone else. After using her design skills to adapt a pair that met his needs and increased his confidence, she went on to conduct extensive research to develop modifications — including alternate closures, adjustability of waistbands, pant and sleeve lengths and alternative ways to get in and out of the clothing. Following launch, RoDF collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger on the first mainstream adaptive clothing line for kids in 2016.

Mindy’s work with RoDF expands beyond adaptive clothing. Founded on the basis that clothing is a basic human need, the Runway of Dreams Foundation develops, delivers and supports initiatives to broaden the reach of mainstream adaptive clothing and promote the differently-abled community in the fashion industry. Through adaptive clothing donations, employment opportunity initiatives, adaptive design workshops, awareness building campaigns and scholarships programs, RoDF is empowering people with disabilities with opportunity, confidence, independence and style. Envisioning a world where fashion is mainstream and accessible for all, Mindy continues to break down barriers and challenge industry norms.

Erik, Jeff, and Dave connected with Mindy to talk about the leaps and bounds she’s made in the field of accessible fashion for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Although she had been in the fashion world for years she was unaware of the lack of consideration given to those with alternate needs until her son, Oliver, who was born with muscular dystrophy, wanted to fit in with his friends – fashion-wise.

“In my entire career in fashion there was never a thought of the challenges people with disabilities faced.”

Mindy talked about the emotional and personal struggles that came with having a child with a disability that wasn’t immediately diagnosable and how ultimately her situation provided inspiration to help others.

“I could help not just Oliver’s life but the millions of people out there who are experiencing the same thing. This gave me a sense of purpose in a situation where I felt helpless.”

Our hosts dive into the Pioneering process Mindy went through from creating jeans in her living room to having an accessible line with Tommy Hilfiger and founding RoDF. Listen and let us know what you think and subscribe to hear more No Barriers stories.

Check out Mindy’s Runway of Dreams Foundation and keep up with their latest news!

Episode Transcript

Mindy: I could help them understand that just by making modifications to the product that already exists could help millions of people. It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be custom, but if it makes life easier for this enormous population? Why wouldn’t they do it?

Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten a chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to blind.

Erik: It’s been a struggle to live what I call a no-barriers life; to define it; to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process, and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Dave: Today we meet Mindy Scheier, who translated her experience and expertise in the fashion world to develop and deliver clothing with adaptive modifications to better serve the differently-abled community in a mainstream way. She founded Runway of Dreams Foundation in 2014, and in 2016 collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger on the first mainstream adaptive clothing line for kids.

Dave: Her dream started when she designed a pair of jeans for her son, Oliver, who has muscular dystrophy and who wanted to wear what everyone else was wearing. Envisioning a world where fashion is mainstream and accessible for all, Mindy continues to break down barriers and challenge industry norms. You can come hear Mindy speak at our Innovation Panel at the No Barriers Summit this June.

Dave: Welcome everybody to our No Barriers podcast. This is Dave Shurna, one of the founders and the executive director of No Barriers. We are thrilled today to have Mindy Scheier on our podcast. I can’t wait to have a conversation with her, I think you’re going to find it to be enlightening and powerful. We first heard of Mindy through her TED Talk, which was a phenomenal talk that she gave. Make sure you have a box of tissues ready when you go and watch that. We’ll put the TED Talk link in our show notes here, and Mindy’s going to be a speaker at our No Barriers Summit in June in Lake Tahoe.

Dave: So Erik and Jeff, great to have you guys here.

Erik: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Jeff: Yeah, just in learning a little bit about Mindy from the front side. You know Dave, you’re a fashionable guy; but Mindy is a fashionista and fashion specialist. And although Dave has some fashion sense, Erik and I have zero; so it’s going to be nice to sort of dive into a pool that Erik and I have never swam in before.

Erik: No way. I’ve been described as “mountain chic.”

Mindy: Oh I love that.

Erik: Yeah.

Jeff: Ooh.

Mindy: That’s really trending right now.

Erik: Thank you.

Dave: Erik, I can attest. You go around the world speaking to companies, and I would never come up with “mountain chic” for the outfits you put on.

Jeff: That’s a little generous, bro.

Erik: You know, I’m used to getting busted on by Jeff, but not by you, Dave.

Jeff: Well done, Dave. Well done. Good job.

Erik: Yeah, entering new terrain, there.

Jeff: Thanks for being with us though, Mindy. We’re excited to talk to you.

Mindy: Thank you, I’m so honored to be here.

Dave: Well why don’t we get started? Mindy, we are bringing you on this podcast partly because of the extraordinary work that you have done through your Runway of Dreams Foundation, and so maybe we could start there and just give us a little bit of background of the Foundation and the work that it does.

Mindy: Absolutely. I was that little girl that dreamed of being a fashion designer, and I wasn’t just going to be a fashion designer. I was going to be a global phenomenon, and I really started living out that dream. I went to fashion design school, I studied in Italy, and I worked in the industry my whole career. Life can happen, and the irony is, one of my children was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy in which one of his greatest challenges on a daily was being able to dress himself, the very thing that I loved to do every single day, was an incredible, difficult process. Frustrating, aggravating, everything that you do not want to start your day with, is how his day started.

Mindy: So when he began school age, we decided that he would just wear sweat pants to school every day, because it was the only way that we knew he’d be able to go to the bathroom on his own, that he’d be able to fit leg braces under his sweatpants, and it just-

Erik: And he had trouble with zippers, too, right?

Mindy: Absolutely.

Erik: I think I read that things like zippers, like the fine motor skills, were really hard for him.

Mindy: Absolutely. It was really any closure. Putting a button through a button hole, zippering up and manipulating the button at the top of a jean was really challenging. So our solve was that he wore sweatpants, and that didn’t feel out of the ordinary. It was an eight-year-old boy and it seemed all good.

Mindy: Until one day, he came home from school and said that he didn’t understand why he didn’t wear jeans like everybody else gets to wear to school, and he felt that wearing sweatpants every day made him feel that he was dressing disabled.

Mindy: And that was such an a-ha moment for me, for the very thing that I loved more than anything, I had to be reminded by my eight year-old the power of clothing, and how it makes you feel showing yourself to the outside world, and using it as a communicator to who you are as a person. And he felt that wearing sweatpants every day didn’t allow him to have that freedom.

Jeff: Had it occurred to you at all, even one bit, every day when he was wearing sweatpants, had it occurred to you at all that maybe he was feeling insecure about it or in some fashion was sort of bummed out? Or had he voiced it before?

Mindy: If I’m being honest? I had no idea. And that’s such a great question because even having worked in the industry my whole career, there was never even a thought about the challenges of clothing for people with disabilities. It wasn’t in my world, it wasn’t in my vernacular. I knew nothing about adaptive clothing. I had to really educate myself on what that is. I mean, this audience I’m sure knows what it is, but just in case: it’s clothing that is created for people with disabilities; people that struggle with dressing themselves; and the elderly.

Mindy: And when I decided to kind of Google this world of adaptive clothing, I was horrified by what came up, because number one: the first thing that came up was clothing for the elderly, and I was searching for my eight-year-old son. And it wasn’t fashionable or stylish, or anything that I would put my kid in, and that hurt me.

Erik: Well, I mean everyone can relate to that, right? I mean this is such a universal thing for everyone. It’s right under their nose, I think. When I was a kid, I remember moving back to Connecticut and I was living in Hong Kong, and I showed up the first day with like a Chinese bag and some cool Ming jacket that was cool in Hong Kong, and everybody was like, “What the heck is wrong with you,” and “Why don’t you have Toughskins and Converse sneakers?” And man, I cried that night and ran home and said, “Mom, I got to get some Toughskins, I got to get some jeans. This is unacceptable.” So everyone probably has that, just the idea of how important this is for everyone, every kid especially.

Mindy: Exactly. And that’s such an interesting point, because I know that. I know the physical feeling of when you’re wearing something that makes you feel great. You know, those perfect jeans or that power suit, or that amazing black dress that makes you feel sexy and beautiful. And when you don’t have those options, it is debilitating. Outside of everything else he had to deal with, that was one thing that I could actually do something about. And that’s what really started me on the journey of Runway of Dreams, because I couldn’t imagine if we were really challenged with clothing, how is somebody that was in a wheelchair full time; or had a limb difference; or autism or Down’s syndrome; or the vast amounts of disabilities out there. What were their challenges?

Mindy: And I wasn’t going into this just to help Oliver. I felt that it was a global issue that needed to be solved, and could be solved by making modifications.

Erik: But before all of that, you really had to MacGyver some stuff together for Oliver, and I find that fascinating because people, a lot of times, ask you, “How do you get started?” And that “how you get started” question is just so tricky. You’re MacGyvering, you’re doing the most ridiculous stuff just on your sewing machine, probably. Break it down for us. Tell us all the wild stuff you had to do just to start.

Mindy: And that’s a perfect word, because that’s actually what I did to those jeans the night that Oliver asked to wear jeans. I was so devastated, and I think this is such an important point to really talk about the realities, is that I spent the first half of the night crying, that I missed this. That how could I have missed such an easy, right-in-front-of-your-face issue of clothing?

Mindy: So I ripped apart his jeans. Again, this is in the middle of the night, so I basically utilized peel and stick Velcro to replace the closures on the jeans. I cut up the side seams so that they could go around his leg braces, and again, secured them with the Velcro. I got very strategic with some rubber bands to make it stretchy. And when I showed Oliver my arts and crafts project, because that’s really what they looked like, it was an immediate change that came over him. Because number one, it was the first time he ever was able to dress himself independently with a pair of jeans; and second of all, he felt like he looked like everybody else. He felt on the outside what he always felt on the inside, which was normal. This is his world, he doesn’t know any different than how his body functions. And it was such a revelation that a pair of jeans literally changed his life.

Jeff: I bet you probably had one of those sort of legendary, hectic, sort of chaotic nights where your kid comes and has this a-ha moment; you have this moment; and then after you get done with the remorseful part of it, you just go down into your lab and just go mad scientist, right? You start throwing around needles and sewing, arrrrggh!! I can just picture you being up all night throwing Velcro on things and just improvising. Is that how it happened?

Mindy: Incredibly accurate, yes. Any proper fashion designer that would’ve seen those jeans would’ve been horrified. But it worked, and he wore them to school the next day and felt like a million bucks, and that was worth it all.

Erik: So is that like an a-ha moment, or was it a slow process from fixing a problem with your son to saying, “Whoa, wait a second. There’s a niche here; there’s a hole that needs to be filled?”

Mindy: It was really an a-ha moment, because it was that very day that I started looking into adaptive clothing and what was out there, and what it looked like, and it was a complete sock in the gut to think that that was the only option for people with disabilities was not acceptable. And in a situation with a neuromuscular disease that is degenerative, there isn’t a lot that I can do to stop the process, to make Oliver’s life easier, except for this was one way that I could make his life better while he lives it.

Mindy: And so for me, that not only felt cathartic and it felt that I could maybe help not only Oliver’s life, but the millions of people out there that were experiencing the same thing, really gave me a sense of purpose situation, where I had felt helpless.

Erik: Yeah, so there’s a little frustration and anger in there at first? Where you’re looking at the world and saying, “Wow, why doesn’t this exist yet?”

Mindy: Actually no. I really wasn’t angry or frustrated, because I was one of them. I was in the industry, and until Oliver came into my life I had absolutely no idea that this was a problem. So it really would’ve been inauthentic for me to be angry, because I didn’t even know. So I more looked at it as an opportunity to educate myself; to educate the industry on an opportunity, a business opportunity, on a population that is the largest minority on our planet; that, which is my most favorite statistic because it’s so mind-blowing. That it is the only minority that every single person on the planet is going to be a part of at some point in their life. Whether that’s just getting old, or something happens in their life, et cetera. That’s so powerful. How in the world do we not create product that’s going to benefit everyone at some stage of their life?

Jeff: Okay, so how long ago was it, this night with the improvisation with Oliver’s clothing. What year was that?

Mindy: That was in 2013, and I would say over the next couple months, that’s when I decided that I was going to go all-in and I sold my company to my partner that I had started, and decided that I needed to really embed myself in this population. In order to go after the industry, I’d better know what I’m talking about and better have some solid statistics behind me. So I spent an entire year doing research. Focus groups, surveys, going to hospitals, talking to PTs and OTs and schools, and really anybody that would talk to me. And I do references in my TED Talk, but this is a true story: I literally chased down people on the street that were in wheelchairs, or had a walker, or even looked remotely like they had a disability. Because I needed to completely understand any and all challenges to assess if there were commonalities between them all, and thankfully after that year of research, I was able to assess that there were.

Erik: What were the commonalities?

Mindy: The commonalities were really three categories. The first was the closures, so buttons, snaps, zippers, hook and eyes, were almost a hundred percent across the board a challenge for both physical and cognitive disabilities. The second was the adjustability of the clothing, so waistbands, pant lengths, sleeve lengths. Having them all be adjustable for different shaped bodies. And the third was alternate ways to get in and out of the clothing. So for example, putting something over your head if you had to be dressed every day is really challenging, to maneuver arms through armholes or a head through a neck hole; if there’s low tone, hyper tone, missing digits, really challenging. So creating another way to get in the product, like opening it up in the back so that you go in arms first and it closes in the back, is not only a time saver but it’s an emotional time saver with the frustration and anxiety that comes with that.

Mindy: So once I had some great data to kind of back all of this up, that’s really when I made the decision that I had to paths I could’ve gone down. I could’ve created my own line, or I could go after the industry and help them understand that just by making modifications to the product that already exists could help millions of people. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s not going to be custom. But if it makes life easier for this enormous population? Why wouldn’t they do it?

Jeff: So help me understand. You’re not starting with a denim fabrication machine and taking denim and sewing it specifically to these… you’re creating improvisational sort of adaptations that you can then provide to these folks, and they can adapt their own personal clothes. Is that right?

Mindy: That’s correct, but to the mainstream brands.

Jeff: Yeah.

Mindy: Not on a personal… As you’ll find out, in 2016 we partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to create the first ever mainstream adaptive clothing line. So the modifications that I developed are used in the product that is their mainstream product, the same product that is for able-bodied people, just some modifications in it for people with disabilities. And I often say this, that it’s really the same premise as to why someone, years ago, decided that a baseball hat needed to be adjustable: so that it could fit so many types of heads. Because a baseball hat started out as literally a cap, and then somebody brilliant said, “Wait, we need this to fit any head.” Same premise.

Dave: Mindy, as I’m hearing this story, you’ve clearly created a purpose-driven mission organization based on a personal experience you had with Oliver. Just as you mentioned in the stats, most of us will have some disability at some point in our life, and if you then add to that, most of us will have to take care of someone who has a disability at some point in their lives.

Dave: I’d like to talk a little bit more about you and your son, and how that process went for you when you found out that he had muscular dystrophy, and the challenges you went through in trying to figure out how to reorganize your life and your family’s life around some of the new challenges you were facing. Because it strikes me that part of your story is that story, and I would like listeners to hear that because I think many of us and many in the No Barriers community are in a situation where they either have a disability, or they’re working to help someone who has a disability.

Mindy: Well, if Oliver wasn’t my second child, I don’t think I would’ve been as clued in that something wasn’t right from the minute he was born. He was really floppy, he could never hold his head up, he was missing milestone after milestone. And the interesting thing, and one thing that I would love to share with the community, is that there’s really something to be said about instinct, because we went to doctor after doctor who said, “Eh, he’s delayed. He has low muscle tone. You’re so little, so probably he’s going to be really little,” and it just never sat right with me. I just didn’t believe that that was all that it was, and-

Jeff: Momma knows best in these scenarios.

Mindy: But it’s very hard to believe in yourself when you have doctors telling you otherwise.

Jeff: Mm-hmm.

Mindy: And I think that that’s something that, if you really feel it? I really think that it’s probably accurate.

Mindy: And so it actually took four years for Oliver to be diagnosed, and I’ll of course never forget this moment in my life. I’m driving on the highway and the doctor calls, and he says, “Great news.” I said, “What?” “We have a diagnosis,” and he said, “He has muscular dystrophy.” And I was so completely floored, and just… I had an out-of-body experience. I didn’t even know what muscular dystrophy really was, outside of the Jerry Lewis telethon that happened every year. That was my extent of knowing what muscular dystrophy was, and to have it kind of wrapped into “great news” was so hard for me to absorb. I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to curl up in a ball and cry.

Jeff: Yeah, maybe it was easier when it was this nebulous thing that you didn’t really know for sure?

Mindy: A little bit, but I will tell you: the unknown is just as horrific because your brain can go to very dark places, and when doctor after doctor kept saying very different things of what was going on, it was hard to formulate a plan when you didn’t know what was wrong.

Mindy: So once I did what probably any other Mom would do, I started Googling and really got a better understanding of what muscular dystrophy was; what his version was. I found out very quickly that he’s one of 70 cases in the world, so they had no information on it. They’re literally learning from Oliver. I mean, we go to the NIH every year so that they can do studies on how his version affects the body, et cetera. So now that, you know he was four at the time and now he’s 14, and I can whole-heartedly look back and say it actually was great news that he was diagnosed, and that we did have a path and we could at least be proactive and not have to be reactive about everything that was happening to him, and really in the dark.

Erik: So as a mom, that changes your role as a parent, right?

Mindy: Yes.

Erik: Because Oliver probably needs more help, and how does that work as he grows up now? Because when he’s a little kid he probably accepts all that help, but man. I have a teenager. I know at a certain point they’re like, “Mom, I want to be more independent.” How does that process work?

Mindy: I appreciate that I can be so honest and candid, but it really sucks right now. I have to just be as honest as I can.

Erik: We like honesty.

Jeff: Yeah, we’ve all got kids. We know.

Erik: Yeah, we know.

Mindy: So to your point exactly, when he was little it was much easier to spin things and say that his huge CPAP machine that he’s got to sleep with every night is to make him into a ninja and all these great stories I could fill his head with. But as a teenager, there are no more of these stories, and the reality has set in. And in his case, his brain is a complete A-plus, and that is… I am so incredibly grateful for that. But it’s very hard for him to see things that he cannot do anymore, and he was able to do less than a year ago. And he’s angry, and he is frustrated, and there’s a lot of “why me” right now, and I think that it’s just a stage of life that I need to get him through.

Mindy: But it’s very hard. It’s really emotionally and physically difficult to explain to him why we can’t do anything to stop it, or help it, or all the things that you want to be able to do as a parent.

Erik: Even fully able-bodied kids who are affluent, they still go through that angry stage-

Mindy: Hundred percent.

Erik: And they have no reason to be angry. And Oliver sounds like, obviously it’s all expounded with a disability and with the progressive nature of it too.

Mindy: Absolutely, and that’s why, you know, obviously one of the many reasons I’m so grateful to go to No Barriers, but I am bringing him and I fully believe that this is going to be a game-changer for him. Because even though this is what I do for a living and I am surrounded by people with disabilities 24 hours a day, he doesn’t really have anybody in his life directly that he can connect with. Everybody, all of his friends, are as able-bodied as they come. They’re all incredible athletes and things that I never really thought would wind up being even more challenging, but it is the company that he keeps.

Mindy: So I really believe that having him a part of No Barriers is going to show him how much life can offer, even with a disability.

Erik: That’s for sure. I sat next to a veteran, he’s a leg amputee. He was teaching some of our kickboxing clinics, and he said, “You know, I felt like a zebra my whole life; you know I’m around all these horses and I felt like a zebra. And I went to No Barriers and I looked around. There were zebras everywhere.”

Mindy: Mm-hmm, I love that. Yes. I hope he finds zebras.

Erik: And so yeah, I think he will find that.

Dave: Mindy, I’d love to talk about this idea that I think many of us experience in our No Barriers community, which is that feeling of “why me?” Was there a point as a mother, or perhaps earlier on. You kind of went through that story where you felt that feeling of “why me,” and tell us a little bit about that and how people can get through it.

Mindy: I probably feel that at least every other week. When something happens that I cannot fix, like for example, again, at this stage of the game? Erik, I don’t know if you experienced the same thing, but all 14-year old boys seem to be bike riding right now.

Erik: Yep.

Mindy: And they’re biking all over town, and it’s getting beautiful here now, and Oliver feels trapped in our house, because he can not participate. And the first beautiful day, he was just devastated, and definitely was going through a “why me.” And I did too.

Mindy: I said to him, “Listen to me. We’re going to have a ‘why me’ day, and we’re going to give it 24 hours, and we are going to have the biggest pity party of all time. You can curse as much as you want; you can eat whatever you want. But tomorrow at this time, we’re going to be done, and we are going to figure out a solution and we are going to not think about this again. But until then, we are going to have a complete F-bomb party.” And that seems to be how we get through it. We allow. You know, I think it’s important to be real and allow these feelings to happen, because it is. It sucks. Especially when things like this, that literally everybody is bike riding.

Mindy: And I think it helped him feel a little less alone, that I could be a part of this with him and see it from a different perspective, that I also am devastated for him. I will never know what it’s like to be in his skin, and I acknowledge that. But he won’t know what it’s like to be in my skin either, to be his mother and not be able to do anything about this. I birthed him. I was a little bit of a part of this problem that he has now. So I think that was really… Made him feel better in a way, that it was my kind of new way, my plan of, call it saying that it was for a ninja with his machine. This is my new replacement plan for as he gets older and these are bigger issues that are very prominent in his life.

Erik: Have you found some practical strategies to get him out there into the world?

Mindy: I did.

Erik: With making innovations or-

Mindy: I did. I’m terrified about it, let’s just be clear about that.

Erik: Oh, I hear you.

Mindy: A motorized tricycle, and it’s very cool. It looks like a hog, like a Harley. I mean, it’s a souped-up tricycle, and it just came yesterday. He could not wait to get on it, and we rode around the neighborhood a little bit, and I’m literally perspiring. I’m following him in the car, and when he got off the bike, he said to me, I mean I could cry right now because it’s so… He said, “I never thought I’d ever experience what it feels like to ride a bike, and now I have.”

Jeff: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Dave: When you think about that idea of “why me,” sort of this theme of “why me.” Mindy, one thing that you said early in the podcast strikes me. I’d like you to talk a little bit more about this. Part of what I see you able to do is to have found through this journey you’ve been on, something that gives you purpose in your work that is tied to the journey. And one of the things that I’m really fascinated by is how purpose and meaning can give us strength in our darkest times. And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the role of purpose and meaning in your life, and how that can give strength.

Mindy: I think that is one of the things I feel most fortunate about, that it’s kind of a rare situation that I’m a trained fashion designer, and my kid struggled with dressing himself, and I could actually do something about that. Like you said, it can be very dark times that this definitely gave me purpose. It gave my family purpose. I think that there’s something that definitely needs to be talked about maybe a little bit more, and I’m going to loop it into the answer to this question, is that it’s very hard to be the sibling of a child with a disability. I think that what Runway of Dreams has done for my whole family is that it includes them, his brother and his sister, in a journey that they can’t really understand; that they have to kind of sit on the sidelines and watch Oliver struggle.

Mindy: But this also gives them something that they can get involved in; that they can help understand that this is making people’s lives better while they live it, and it’s really been a blessing. I feel so lucky. I literally wake up every day and feel so lucky that I get to do this, and I feel, again, I feel grateful that I could be on this journey and have met so many incredible people; that I get to be a part of this, and experience what’s going to happen out at No Barriers as a dream come true. In a million years, I never thought I would be here.

Dave: Tell us where you are headed with your business, your nonprofit. You gave us a little bit of the founding story, you told us you got the Tommy Hilfiger line, that was in 2016. Now we’re heading into 2019, 2020. What’s next for the foundation and where it’s headed?

Mindy: Well, I’m very excited to say that I think in a relatively short amount of time we now have more brands focusing on people with disabilities. Target has the Cat & Jack adaptive line; Nike has the FlyEase sneaker; Zappos has Zappos Adaptive, which is a part of their platform that carries all products for people with disabilities.

Mindy: Really one of the core missions of Runway of Dreams is to continue on and educate the industry on the importance of creating adaptive versions of their clothing, because really it should be offered in every single budget, from luxury to budget-end. People with disabilities have really come in all different shapes and sizes and abilities and backgrounds. Some can afford Gucci, and some can afford Target. We really need the industry to get behind this in totality, but it really has to also go beyond just the clothing.

Mindy: I’m talking about having designers that have disabilities; to have people with disabilities on our runways; to have them in ad campaigns; to really have them a part of our pop culture. So we are working to kind of rebrand how people with disabilities are viewed in the fashion industry.

Jeff: It seems as though one of the big steps would be the fact that you’re in New York Fashion week. Now, I’ll say it again: I know nothing about fashion. Zero. I’m a t-shirt and jeans guy. But New York Fashion Week, even this dummy knows what that is, and that’s a big deal, and you’ve got strong representation this September with Fashion Week. So I mean, yeah. I mean, I’d say that that’s upper-tier, right? I mean, you’re-

Mindy: It was a very, very exciting day when we became a part of Fashion Week, and actually this year we’re going to be the first night. What that does is, we’re playing now in the same sandbox as everybody else, and real players in the industry are in. Our shows have models with all different types of disabilities, ages, ethnicities, backgrounds; and just showing the industry of the consumers that need to be included, that people with disabilities are people first. And it’s really interesting to see the reaction of these incredible people going down the runway that are just people, that their bodies just work differently. I can see in the audience, the CEOs and CFOs that are looking, and they’re like… I can see the light bulbs going off in their heads about, “How did we miss this?”

Jeff: But it’s functional fashion, but what little I know of New York Fashion Week? There’s some serious Andy Warhol-looking shit that’s coming down, you know? Like garbage bags and trees and stuff. Do you go that far? Are you like, cutting edge, kind of so fashion-y that it’s a little edgy? Or are you doing really proper functional stuff, or maybe a little of both?

Mindy: No. Ours is very on-trend. It’s really a see-now, buy-now philosophy, that you could see something on the runway and buy it immediately, because our models are real in the sense that I think also it’s important to rebrand who a model is, and that they’re wearing clothing that is fashionable and functional. But most importantly, and this was really important when I developed the modifications, that the product looks like typical clothing. Until you get into it and see that there’s magnets behind the buttons, or that there’s actually an opening in the back rather than in the front, it really looks like what everybody else is wearing. So it’s very on-trend, and it’s really very now, and that’s the framework that we wanted to set up.

Jeff: So no cellophane and garbage bags [crosstalk 00:37:30]?

Mindy: No, no.

Erik: So I know you talk about fashion being a vehicle to bigger things, right? To freedom, in a way transformation. I remember one of our founders, Mark Wellman, he goes around… He’s a paraplegic and he teaches disabled folks how to climb using these adaptive techniques, and a guy showed up in a power chair. He was overweight, and he got him up the wall, and the next time he saw him, the guy was cranking his own wheelchair. He had a tank top, and he had a Mohawk.

Mindy: Love it.

Erik: And it was so cool just to see how one little thing transforms.

Jeff: Empowers.

Erik: So you must’ve seen that a lot. Tell us about that transformational piece.

Mindy: I have so many stories, but I think one is so relevant, and it just happened. We had the big show out in Vegas, and we had 30 models, again, with all different disabilities. Afterwards this beautiful young Asian woman, she’s maybe 21, pulled me aside, and she has a prosthetic arm. She said, “I live in Vegas, and I need you to know that this is the first time that I have ever worn something that it has a short sleeve in my life. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable and different, and this is the first time that I actually felt beautiful, and I felt included and proud to show my arm.”

Mindy: The fact that I got to be a part of such a huge moment in her life, and one that she’s never going to go back to again is really, there’s no words to describe that. To think of her wearing long sleeves in Vegas in the middle of the summer is so heartbreaking to me, because she was embarrassed of how she looked and her arm. And by the way, it was super cool. I mean, it was incredibly high-tech and amazing, and she just never felt comfortable enough to show it. We were a part of changing how she felt about herself.

Erik: Do you think you could even turn it on its head? I remember at No Barriers, a double-leg amputee… I think her name was Amy. She showed up, and she had these glass prosthetic legs, or they were see-through, and it was like she was showing them off. It was beyond, “I want to fit in.” It was like, “I want to be cool. This is a cool thing that I should be proud of.”

Mindy: I absolutely think that’s what is going to happen, because some little girl out there is looking at this woman who was on a runway show proudly showing her arm, and now she’s at home saying, “Wow, if she can do that, I can do that too. She’s so cool, and she was in a runway show.” And I think that the more exposure we have to people with disabilities being kind of loud and proud about how they’re different is going to a trickle-down effect until hopefully when we don’t even have to have these conversations anymore.

Dave: Well tell our listeners where they can go to learn more.

Mindy: They can go to runwayofdreams.org, and you can go to our YouTube channel, which is Runway of Dreams, where we have incredible videos and content, and you can really learn about the community and the excitement about what’s coming next with Runway of Dreams. Certainly we welcome anyone who has ever thought about being a model or participating in any way, and that includes a focus group or surveys. I mean, there’s so many opportunities to be involved that we want to cultivate and include. And actually the only stipulation that we have is that you have to have a disability.

Jeff: And hey, tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be doing at the summit in Tahoe.

Mindy: I’m so excited that I’m going to be speaking, and sharing. I think the incredible similarities that clothing is also a barrier to our world if you don’t have the options to wear what you want to wear, or can’t dress yourself, or feel that the industry isn’t including you. I think that’s an important correlation between No Barriers and Runway of Dreams, and how we can break it down together.

Dave: Awesome. Well we can’t wait to see you and Oliver there, and hopefully Oliver has taken a look at some of the amazing activities that he can be a part of and pick some of them.

Mindy: Yes, I can’t wait.

Dave: For those of you who don’t know the Summit, the Summit is this beautiful celebration of amazing stories and innovations, but also we challenge all attendees to try something they’ve never tried before. And so anything from an outdoor activity like biking or mountain climbing, to arts and theater. We’re looking forward to having you there, so thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Mindy: Thank you. I’m so grateful, thank you so much for having me.

Erik: Thank you.

Jeff: Thanks Mindy.

Dave: Erik, Jeff, another amazing conversation. What did you guys hear that really resonated?

Erik: I love that the idea that this idea of fashion, it becomes a vehicle to something bigger: to freedom, to greater freedom, to greater independence, to transformation in your mindset. And this one specific thing that took a lot of blood and toil to create and adapt becomes this vehicle for a bigger thing. We see that everywhere, it seems like. Mindy talked about commonalities; that seems like a commonality of No Barriers. We’ve seen it with dance; with art; with climbing; athletics. That these things are not really what they appear; they’re really ways through that map to something bigger and more purpose in your life, and I just think that’s so refreshing for people to think about.

Jeff: I love the fact that in a way, Mindy was in the fashion forest and couldn’t see the trees until her son said, “Yo, Mom. Check this out. I need a hand.” And so he was the catalyst for her to be a pioneer, and so they could then pioneer this new sort of channel that hadn’t yet really been developed. As a parent, that really is inspiring for me, to hear and see how that family dynamic created this amazing movement that Mindy has developed. I’m thrilled, I’m excited to meet Oliver, as much as I’m excited to meet Mindy this summer.

Erik: Yeah. Full disclosure: I’m wearing sweatpants right now. I’m stepping out of these things, I’m inspired. I’m going to go put some nice clothes on.

Jeff: Yeah, because that’s mountain chic, the sweatpants are.

Dave: One thing that I loved, a very practical tool, was the “why me” day. I think as an individual who runs No Barriers and helped started it, I’m pretty optimistic in spite of all the things that come up, and I think just recognizing that all of us need a “why me” day where you can drop the F-bombs, and you let it all out. You just say, “For 24 hours, we are just going to let all that pain and suffering and feel ‘woe is me’ so that we get it off of our chest and put it out there in the world, so that we can move forward.” I love that concept.

Jeff: Yeah, because it’s easier to just sort of push it up under the rug day after day after day. Then it starts to build and compound, right? I think if you have one of those days, you’re able to just blow the exhaust out, right? And then it recalibrates you.

Erik: And you know, people always talk. “You’ve got to power forward!” But no, wait a second. Immerse yourself in the struggle, and the blood and the feelings. Feel it fully. Let it all feel. And then you’re ready to go on. You don’t want to linger too long. I like how she said, “Hey, 24 hours, and then we move on.” But you’ve got to let yourself do it.

Jeff: Yeah.

Dave: Yeah.

Dave: Well thank you guys, another great discussion.

Jeff: Awesome.

Dave: For those of you who would like to learn more about Runway of Dreams, please see our show notes for links that were referenced in this podcast. I hope that we see many of you at the No Barriers Summit in Lake Tahoe, June 13th to the 15th. That’ll be an extraordinary event, and we invite you all to join us.

Dave: Thank you.

Erik: No Barriers.

Jeff: See you next time.

Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

Dave: Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Shaffer; sound design editing and mixing by Tyler Kottman; graphics by Sam Davis; and marketing support by Karly Sandsmark and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.

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