This Jewish Artist Is Using Fashion to Destigmatize Chronic Illness

Jessica Cummin tells us about being a neurodivergent, disabled, wheelchair-using Ashkenazi Jew.

Growing up in London, Jessica Cummin was always super creative, often spending her days drawing and painting, which was something that was nurtured by her Jewish family. However, when Jessica started to experience symptoms of chronic illness as a young adult, it became more and more difficult for her to exercise the skills she had long relied on for creative expression and catharsis.

“I remember getting really frustrated because all I’d ever known was drawing and painting. I felt so trapped,” she shares with Alma.

So, the creative, who is now 23, decided to make a t-shirt about her disabilities that said, “not getting well soon,” which was meant to be an ironic response to the common saying, “get well soon.” Little did she know that other people in the disabled community would find themselves empowered by her design. Receiving a positive response, Jessica has since gone on to make more merch, including other t-shirts and pins which she sells in her Etsy shop The Chronic Iconic, while also using her Instagram to talk about being a neurodivergent, disabled, wheelchair-using Ashkenazi Jew.

Alma spoke with Jessica about what first inspired her t-shirts and how her identity as a Jew has played a part in her journey.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

It seems like creativity is a major form of healing and self-expression for you. Is that something that was a part of your upbringing from the get-go? What kinds of things did you make back then?

As a kid I was always drawing. In childhood pictures, there was a lot of commotion going on in the background and I’m just there drawing. And I was lucky because my family encouraged my creativity. There was really never a period of time where I wasn’t engaged in something creative. And then when I was a teenager, I started making clothing and redesigning clothing and that became my main avenue.

How did you start making the work that you’ve been creating recently?

I dropped out of university a few years ago. I went through a really disillusioned period thinking, okay, I can’t draw, I can’t paint anymore. And then as my pain started to progress, I stopped being able to hold a pen for a long period of time. And I remember getting really frustrated because all I’d ever known was drawing and painting. I felt so trapped. I thought, well, what am I going to do? I need an income, [but] I can’t do a job where I’m standing up and walking around, and I have no idea what to do.

And because I was quite young everyone around me would say, “Oh, feel better soon.” And all of those kind of generic, empty phrases. So, the phrase “not getting well soon” kept bouncing around in my head and I would try and sit down and draw something around it and had to stop because of the pain.

Then, I had this epiphany where I was like, I can be creative without drawing. So, I designed the shirts and pins, and it started from there. Now, I’m trying to get back to drawing and painting again because I’ve done enough physio that I think I can, but all of my work pokes fun and is a bit passive aggressive towards the ideas people put on sick people.

Will you talk to me a bit more about the shirts you’ve been creating and what they mean to you?

When I started looking at advocacy in the form of clothing and pins around chronic illness, everything I saw was just okay. A lot of it didn’t have any personality. It was a lot of awareness t-shirts with logos or ones that literally said I have this condition. I didn’t like that because it felt like branding, and it didn’t feel empowering or as if the people who would wear it had any sort of sense of ownership.

With these shirts, I wanted my personality to shine through and start a dialogue. So, my first batch said “not getting well soon.” My design has changed a bit but the outcome ended up being slightly different than my intention. What’s happened is that a lot of people have gotten in touch saying that my work has made them feel more confident in their disability and feel less ashamed. So, after the first one, I did “disabled is not a dirty word” and “big sick energy.” I did a small trial of “brain fog and chill,” but it was so niche that I pulled it.

Your Instagram account is almost like a diary and you’re really open about your personal experiences. What inspired you to start using your platform in that way?

I started using my account in this way years ago because of my experience with mental illness, but it was never a conscious choice. Still, a lot of people said that it gave them insight into something they had no idea about or gave them comfort in knowing that they weren’t alone. I think I was saying things they weren’t comfortable with talking about yet. There’s a lot of people in both mentally and physically ill communities online who don’t have those conversations in real life. They don’t have someone who they talk to who understands a fragment of what’s happening to them. So, there’s a lot of comfort in that. And when I got physically ill, I just continued doing that.

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The biggest challenge I’ve found since getting unwell has been feeling ashamed of my splints / mobility aids. It can be pretty humiliating to see people’s looks or hear flippant comments. In order to make myself feel powerful and glorious when out in public I’ve reminded myself to still be the ostentatious, loud and extra me that I was before I got this sick. I am becoming more and more unapologetic and I’ve found the more colourful and obvious I’ve become, the less ashamed I am. Why should I feel bad about needing mobility aids or splints? They’re literally just tools to allow me to continue being me, they’re amazing items that greatly reduce the suffering and strain on my body! Basically this is me taking ownership of my disability and making my creativity and personality overpower the weakness and vulnerability.

A post shared by Jess (@thechroniciconic) on

Now I’m aware that it’s an attraction and that some people are following because they want to hear about it and they want to know that they’re not alone and they want to connect and they want to share it with people who maybe don’t understand.

What do you hope people take away from seeing your platform and the shirts you make and engaging with the content you create?

I think it’s different depending on who is seeing it. With people who are not disabled or not neurodivergent, I want them to get better insight into the experience of being someone who’s young and experiencing these things. No one ever wants to admit this, but there is a massive stigma and divide between people in wheelchairs and everyone else in society. By me having an account where I’m still trying to get across my personality whilst advocating and whilst showing that people with disabilities and people with conditions who have adapted their lives can still do things, it can impact both able-bodied and disabled people.

How has your identity as a Jew has played a part in your journey?

I think every Jewish person has an always changing and adapting relationship with their Jewishness. In the last six years or so, I’ve reconnected with my Judaism and I think it’s woven its way into my activism, because obviously I am speaking about members of society that have misconceptions or stigmas against them. And I think the same thing applies to Jewish people.

I’ve also been able to find a correlation between the negative experiences of being a Jewish woman in society and also being disabled. I can’t really separate them.

Image by Sharon McCutecheon/Unsplash; courtesy of @thechroniciconic on Instagram

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