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Facebook algorithms hurt independent brands serving disabled market

By Jackie Mallon


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FFORA wheelchair accessories

Two years ago, Facebook flagged the website of Slick Chicks, a company which sells adaptive underwear for diverse bodies, for content which Facebook said went against their community standards. The content was an image of a woman in a wheelchair wearing their patented side opening underwear.

“We feature our customers and brand ambassadors on our website and social media because we believe in showing people in real life situations, embracing their individuality,” Helya Mohammadian, Founder of SlickChicks, told FashionUnited. “Our mission at Slick Chicks is to empower our customers and give them a little more independence in something we take for granted every day, like getting dressed.”

Slick Chicks patented underwear, slickchicksonline.com

As a small business, Slick Chicks relies on social media to reach its customer, and to advertise, but not only that. An important part of Mohammadian’s work, she believes, is to advocate for people with disabilities and for social media inclusiveness. So she decided to take Facebook on. After sending dozens of emails to them without success, she launched a petition on change.org, reaching 1000 signatures within 3 weeks. Facebook lifted the ban. But she couldn’t be expected to take this action for every product launch.

Adaptive market demands Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity

Maura Horton, founder of adaptive brand MagnaReady which was sold to Global Brands Group in 2019, had difficulty obtaining ads on social media platforms since her company’s 2013 inception. In her role as Chief Community Officer at JUNIPERunltd, a community and commerce hub for the disabled, she notes that, despite more adaptive brands entering the space, the issue remains. “Even more alarming,” she added, “with DEI at the forefront of conversation and companies taking a closer look at what they are saying and doing.”

In Horton’s experience, an ad for a pant worn by a standing person and another for the same pant modified for the seated body and worn by a model in a wheelchair, were treated differently by Facebook. The former passed without incident, the latter was denied, repeatedly. “The exact same wording, product description and caption,” said Horton. “The only difference is a visual difference.” Horton received an email from Facebook identifying the blocked pant as “medical related in nature.”

Lucy Jones, founder and CEO of FFORA, a range of purses and accessories designed to affix onto the frames of wheelchairs, received a similar email. “There is simply nothing medical about them,” Jones told FashionUnited of the FFORA assortment. “You could compare our product to a bicycle cup holder for example, and I would find it hard to believe if that was flagged as ‘medical in nature’.”

Jones and her marketing team had to rethink all the terminology they used in ads, eventually pausing those efforts entirely to focus on engaging with her current community and in-person opportunities before Covid-19 scuppered those. “As you can imagine it greatly downsized our audience reach, which is not ideal for a new company trying to get the word out and share our products with the potential customers that our products would resonate with.”

Facebook currently has 2.8 billion users, so the potential for building brand awareness is unparalleled. But when start-ups and small brands receive such emails from tech giants, shutting down their content, effectively silencing them, it can create paralyzing uncertainty at a time when success in the apparel sector is already far from guaranteed.

“Initially I thought we were alone with this confusing situation,” said Jones. “However with all these companies sharing their stories of frustration it has created a support system and now I feel more confident and less isolated moving forward.”

Billy Price of BILLY Footwear recently had an experience in which Facebook blocked a new shoe style without explanation. “The strange thing was it only applied to certain sizing variants, not the entire SKU,” he said, contemplating the prospect of doing a thorough audit to understand why some variants are getting through while others are blocked.

Billy Classic Lace Highs, Billyfootwear.com

It’s a David and Goliath scenario that seems oddly out of touch with our contemporary desire to amplify previously unheard voices. Independent brands have always struggled in a competitive and saturated ad market. But brands designed to serve a marginalized community of people, many of whom live with chronic pain that can be alleviated somewhat with the purchase of a shirt featuring magnets instead of buttons, or a pant that has a side instead of front opening, shouldn’t have to work so hard to get their product to that consumer.

Facebook’s automated intelligence threatens success of adaptive brands

“We use language such as Universal Design and Fashion Meets Function which speaks to the total market, not just adaptive,” said Price. “Unbeknownst to us, this may be the solution to the tagging problem.” Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a need for petitions, appeals or hacks. 1 in every 4 people in the US lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the adaptive clothing market is estimated to be worth close to 400 billion dollars by 2026. Yet, getting past the capricious algorithms and mistakes of AI programming is a process of trial and error for many of the brands we spoke to, as well as being time-consuming, exhausting and costly.

But for Mara Horton, the algorithms are merely symptoms of larger societal attitudes of ableism, discrimination and censorship. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter are also platforms that can also be used for education, advocacy, and to share and build awareness. “The bigger issue is the fight to be recognized and visually represented,” said Horton. “This is about self-identification.”

FashionUnited reached out to Facebook for comment on how it is addressing the issues mentioned but it had not responded by publishing time.

Header image LiveFFORA.com

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry

Adaptive fashion