BERKELEY, Calif. — Even in middle school, Alva Gardner had her fashion standards. Jeans made expressly for wheelchair users — cut high in the back, low in the front, Velcroed at the fly — seemed like a potential boon.
But when the mail-order pants arrived on her doorstep, Gardner, then 13 or 14, refused to wear them. Although easier for her to put on and take off than standard jeans, they were baggy and ugly, recalls the UC Berkeley undergrad. And baggy and ugly, she says, “would not have been good for my social life.”
Fast forward to 2012: Gardner, now a 22-year-old Berkeley senior, aspires to work in the clothing industry — designing for people, women especially, whose bodies don’t fit the “norm” (a word she utters ironically, aided by air quotes).
As illustration she calls up, on her smartphone, a running list of accessible-fashion concepts awaiting execution by a skilled seamstress — a pair of pants, for instance, with its primary pockets moved to the knees, where people in wheelchairs “could actually use them.” On cold days the same lucky individuals could don a Gardner-designed fleece-lined poncho, complete with metal grommets for easy attachment to the chair.
And what about an umbrella on a swivel mechanism for easy raising and a dry, hands-free ride? “I need to make some friends in the engineering department,” Gardner says.
Her interest in fashion is tied, she says, to her discovery and exploration of her sexuality — an activity rarely associated with those in the disability community. Gardner, who was born with cerebral palsy, begs to differ with the misconception. “People with disabilities are sexually active. Don’t assume they’re not,” she insists.
She gave public voice to these sentiments earlier this year at a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler’s award-winning collection of monologues on women’s sexuality. The play serves as a springboard for “V-Day” benefit performances each February, which often include new monologues written by participants.
Gardner’s very personal poem with a four-letter title chastised “able-bodied society, and men specifically,” she explains, for discounting sexually attractive women like herself because of one “non-normative” vital statistic — a disability. She recalls it getting “an amazing reception” — and how several people inquired whether Ensler had written the monologue. “I was flattered!”
An American Studies major with concentrations reflecting her protean interests (psychology, art, disability studies, gender and women’s studies), Gardner’s courses at Berkeley have given her “academic backing” to understand — and a vocabulary with which to talk about — “a lot of what I experience” as a woman with a disability, she says.
Invisibility is a big part of that reality. Characters with “atypical bodies” are few and far between on TV, and one rarely sees a model with a visible disability in a fashion ad, Gardner observes.
She plans to stay at Berkeley for a fifth year to explore this fertile terrain, in a thesis looking at fashion and popular culture. Its theme in a nutshell: “the inaccessibility” of fashion advertising, “and how it influences the self-esteem of people with disabilities in an able-bodied society.”
She also hopes to continue the “public-speaking career” she began at age 8, when she spoke to a roomful of college students studying special education — about what it was like to be a kid with a disability.
Looking back now on that childhood, Gardner describes it as “hard” but “privileged,” too — because of an “amazing mom who made me very strong.” Middle-schoolers “are mean, heartless people,” Gardner says of her early teens. And while her high-school administration was supportive, it was “tough to be the only kid in a chair,” she recalls. “I got quiet and introverted, and that’s definitely not me.”
College has been “an entirely different world in terms of inclusion and acceptance,” Gardner adds. “I don’t like using the word ‘normal,’ but disability is ‘normalized’ here.”
These days she guest-lectures periodically at UCSF Medical Center, hoping “to break down preconceived notions” for future doctors. “Get to know your patient,” she tells them. “Don’t be a mindless doctor who arbitrarily prescribes. Know other options besides surgery and meds.”
She shares her personal experience: how, for instance, she does not have the seizures typically associated with CP; nor has she had the tendon-lengthening surgery often recommended for kids with the condition. “Instead of mindlessly following the doctor’s orders,” Gardner says, “my mom did research, talked to other parents, consulted with doctors and actively advocated” on her daughter’s behalf — and an “amazing pediatrician” respected “our opinions and voice” regarding treatment options, she says.
Gardner has, in fact, done traditional forms of physical and occupational therapy in her life. But she’s also participated in activities that may surprise: swimming, skiing, snowboarding, Feldenkrais, even (as cited on her Facebook page) power soccer and bungee-jumping off a high place, tethered only by an elastic cord.
“It was a lot of fun. I’d love to do it again,” she says of the latter. “And skydiving is on my bucket list.”
In the meantime, if there’s an able seamstress out there, or a clever mechanical engineer, Alva Gardner would like to get in touch with you.