Dressing Sharp Can Break Down Stereotypes

By , June 13, 2012

Everyone understands the importance of dressing up for a job interview. But did you know dressing well can help break stereotypes? Stereotypes affect opinions of ability and intentions anytime you’re dealing with people from different ethnic groups, age groups, cultures, or the perceived “norm.”

As an entrepreneur and businessman I understand the value of first impressions. If someone is harboring a negative stereotype, consciously or unconsciously, it can be very hard to get off on the right foot. That’s why I dress sharp, as I never know when I am going to meet a new client. I also am very sensitive to being judged because of issues beyond my control.

I’ve had people assume that I have limited mental ability and talk down to me. All because I have cerebral palsy and use an electric wheelchair. People see a wheelchair and many make immediate assumptions. They have no idea that I graduated from college with honors and have my own grant-writing and consulting business.

When I began my career I started to think more about how I was dressing and presenting myself to counteract some of these negative first impressions. I came to a very important realization. If I waited for everyone in the world to learn that a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m less useful – then I’m going to have a long, lonely wait. By dressing sharp and forcing people to see me as someone in control of his own appearance (and often someone in much better control than they are) I’ve preempted the stereotype.

Dressing well does not mean wearing a custom three-piece suit everywhere you go. It just means looking your best in whatever environment you are in. It means having a well-fitted suit as opposed to something cheap and off the rack, or adding a blazer or tie when you could get away with just a dress shirt.

Of course, spending my day in a wheelchair has created some difficulties in my pursuit to dressing well. Obstacles include my neck size, the braces I wear on my feet, dressing difficulties, and the whole issue of look vs. functionality.  Here are some ways that I get around these obstacles, which hopefully will help others with physical disabilities dress for success, too.

Shirts – Like some men my larger neck size does not fit my body type. I need to wear extra-large shirts, but they’re often too long and I end up sitting on half of the shirt – not the most comfortable fit in the world. So I wear “Slim Fit” (also sometimes just called “Fitted”) shirts, and I recommend them for anyone that doesn’t have a broad chest.

Shoes – Most dress shoes don’t fit with the hard plastic braces that I wear on my feet and ankles. In business meetings I wear high-quality skateboarding shoes that are entirely black with black laces so that they can fit in with everyone else’s black leather oxfords. Spend the money on one pair of comfortable dress shoes or cloth shoes with matching laces, sole, and stitching — and set them aside for business and formal occasions only.

Jackets – I don’t have full movement of my arms and upper body, which makes putting on a blazer or suit jacket a daunting task. I recommend substituting a sweater vest or dress vest (like you might find as part of a three-piece suit) for a jacket. That will keep you looking business-like without the struggle to put a jacket on and the difficulty moving in one.

Neckties – For people with a limited hand or arm movement, there’s no easy way to tie a necktie. My solution is to buy neckties that are already tied. My favorite type is a zipper tie (not to be confused with “zip-ties,” those little plastic bindings) that comes pre-tied with a zipper hidden inside the knot. They don’t have the obvious buckle-bulge you get with a cheap clip-on, and I don’t have to spend half an hour fighting with a knot to go out looking good.

Pocket Squares – I also like pocket squares, which really add a special touch to an outfit. I don’t have the dexterity to fold a pocket square the way I’d like, so I ask someone help me fold the square once and then I sew or staple a small piece of cardboard inside the bottom of the fold.  You’ll see tuxedo rental places using the same trick.

Trousers – Sitting in a wheelchair all day means balancing comfort and style with function. Khakis and dress pants fit well on the waist but are usually fastened with multiple buttons, which can be troublesome when I have to use the restroom. My solution is to wear khakis with a half or full elastic waistband, though these aren’t the most stylish pants in the world. I dress more formally on my upper body, such as with a dress shirt, vest and tie when appropriate. The vest helps conceal the elastic band on the pants, and the business shirt and tie help guide people’s eyes up toward my face.

Some people say fashion is a pain and isn’t what really matters. For my part, I’m glad I’m not one of those people. I dress well and it gets me the attention and respect I deserve as a businessman, instead of letting people form their own mistaken opinions based on the fact that I’m a guy in a wheelchair.

My final words of advice – Dressing well might not make you a millionaire overnight, but it will help get you past stereotypes and give you the opportunity to make your own success!


Author: Brett Glirbas

Brett Glirbas is the founder of Achievable Ventures, a grant-writing company in Sioux Falls, S.D., that helps non-profit organizations fund conferences, events and other projects. He has overcome the physical disability of cerebral palsy to become a successful business owner and motivational speaker. He serves on the board of the South Dakota Board of Vocational Rehabilitation and the South Dakota Freedom to Work Leadership Counsel.