Prior to launching her first fashion line, Nikki Hind was working in public relations and pregnant with her first child.
Hind then experienced a series of health and life events that left her legally blind and a single mother dealing with trauma and isolation.
Determined to be a positive presence and role model for her children, Hind began pursuing her lifelong dream of fashion design. Her talent and perseverance lead to the creation of her first collection which featured at Melbourne Fashion Week twice.
Hind’s dedication to inclusion and showcasing the strengths and power of people with disability shines through in every aspect of her fashion line Blind Grit; from the powerful, beautiful designs, to the stunning models who she calls her Blind Grit angels, representing a broad spectrum of people in the disability community.
Early in her journey, Hind contacted Vision Australia to find existing vision impaired designers to connect with.
After two years of searching, she was officially named the first Australian blind fashion designer, a title that sometimes feels surreal to Hind, who remains focused on the broader goals of her business.
Hind recently spoke at a disability fashion and leadership event, which demonstrated the impact of her work on other people with disability.
“I could feel the importance of what I was doing,” said Hind.
“The room was full of vision impaired people who had come to listen, so they really got it. They were proud of me, appreciative and so supportive; it was so lovely.”
Hind was also recently named Individual of the Year by Vision Australia.
Navigating the fashion industry as a blind designer
Fashion can be a challenging industry to break into for anyone, let alone someone facing the additional barriers, assumptions, and discrimination often experienced by people with disability.
“I’ve certainly been told on this journey that I can’t do this, and neither can ‘they’, meaning people who live with disability,” said Hind.
“Fashion is a huge part of how we communicate socially – for most people that is the first thing they notice, consciously or not.
“However, for people who live with a visible disability, meaning one that others can see, that becomes the first thing people notice. It is such a common presumption that if you have a disability, fashion is not for you because you don’t fit into that physical category of looking desirable.”
Despite the challenges she has faced, Hind remains encouraged by the increasing social appetite for more inclusive representation in fashion and society.
Her concern, however, is that representation is often tokenistic, and a way of profiting from people’s lived experience, rather than a genuine celebration of diversity.
“Fashion is almost always right there at the beginning of social change, it’s very powerful in that way. It portrayed people of different cultures and sexualities when there was a social outcry for more diversity in fashion and the media, and recently started depicting more people with disability,” said Hind.
“That is a good start, however there is not going to be any genuine inclusion of any group, unless there are people at the decision-making tables within that group, and there aren’t. Still, when you look at the fashion industry, the top tier is very often white, privileged, wealthy; traditionally ‘beautiful’ people.”
Hind feels strongly that prestigious fashion magazines could be doing more to harness their powerful social influence to drive the inclusion movement forward.
“I’ve outright asked them to feature one of my Blind Grit angels on a cover, and there’s still a rather loud silence around that. It’s like you’re waiting for the future to catch up,” she said.
Hind believes it won’t be long before one of these magazines will be the first to do this, making international headlines and selling a “bucketload” of copies in the process, but she has her concerns.
“I worry that it will be done by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It would be nice if disability representation was led by people with disability, if cultural representation was led by the various cultures, if diverse sexuality representation was led by that community,” she said.
“Approximately 20 per cent of people in the world identify as having a disability, so I would love to see 20 per cent of high quality, highly desirable fashion imagery representing people of disability, led by the disability community.
“Blind Grit is a very purposeful move to have an enterprise within the fashion industry where all the decision makers have lived experience of disability.
“Success for me, as a fashion designer, is about more than just adding more clothes to the world.”
Challenging social structures
Blind Grit’s business model was founded upon three core concepts: aspiration, validation, and motivation, inspired by the resilience and strength that people with disability possess, and the power of a goal to motivate stepping out of your comfort zone to reach for a dream.
“There was a presumption that I wanted Blind Grit to be a charity. It’s not a charity, it’s a prestigious, kick-ass fashion label,” said Hind.
While charities serve an important purpose, it’s the limiting assumptions that people with disability need to be looked after that Hind set out to challenge.
The social model of disability explains that systemic barriers, exclusion, and negative social attitudes are what limit the potential of people with disability, rather than the disability itself.
“The main reason most people who live with disability have difficulties functioning in a meaningful way is because the society around us wasn’t built for us, so it’s much harder to function within it,” said Hind.
These challenges, whilst frustrating, are what Hind believes make people with disability so perfectly placed for leadership, due to their resilience, ability to innovate and overcome adversity.
“These people have qualities your average CEO would die for, yet they are not allowed in. They have a different perspective borne from living outside of their comfort zone 24/7, they are naturals at innovation and inclusion, and often have a natural propensity to think in a compassionate way.
“These are all fabulous and valuable leadership qualities – why wouldn’t that be of benefit to your business? Yet, there is still this perspective that investing in inclusion is an added expense or charitable act, rather than an exciting opportunity to attract a more valuable, diverse talent pool.”
Nikki Hind’s advice to women with disability
Isolation has been one of the main challenges for many living through the COVID-19 pandemic, which Hind reflects has been a part of daily life for many with disability long before the health crisis.
“When everyone else is back doing their thing, we’ll be living in a very similar way to everyone currently in the pandemic. We’ll be unemployed or underemployed, we’ll be socially isolated, vulnerable and not in control of many things, which is really stressful and difficult,” she said.
Hind knew she didn’t have to navigate this time alone and proactively sought support networks including Global Sisters, a female-led business support organisation, and the Disability Leadership Institute.
“Find people who will understand and support you, because there are some aspects that you want to be able to communicate about in a very safe, private space with people who will get it,” she said.
Support funding is also available through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) however, it remains limited in its support of aspiring entrepreneurs.
“There is no assistance to start a business, despite the number of people with disability who become successful entrepreneurs. Statistically, we’re good at it and then we employ people so why are we not supported to do this when it’s something we want to do?”
Hind also reminds women living with disability to remember their worth.
“If you live with a disability or you’ve survived trauma, you’ve probably got the qualities that successful entrepreneurs require in spades,” said Hind.
“Know that you’ve got qualities that are so valuable and sought after. Hold on to and focus on those, because we now live in a society where your disability will not get in the way of an awesome business idea, or incredible leadership.
“In fact, living with and overcoming those challenges gives you such a head start.”
All images courtesy Nikki Hind.