Designing “Adaptive Clothing” For Those With Special Needs

Companies are releasing new inclusive lines that solve some of the dressing challenges that people with physical and mental disabilities face

“We design the garments around what parents want for their children, what occupational therapists are asking for, what children are saying they’re most comfortable in,” says Sasha Radwan, founder of SpecialKids.Company. (SpecialKids.Company)
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Most of us don’t think a whole lot about getting dressed. Sure, we might care about our style, but the actual process of putting on clothes—pants one leg at a time, button through the button hole—is as automatic as breathing.

But imagine you only have one arm. How do you button your shirt now? What if you receive nutrition through a feeding tube implanted in your stomach? Wearing that cute dress means you can’t eat in public, lest you flash everyone in the room. Think about what the tight waistband of your jeans might feel like if you were autistic and had magnified sensitivity to touch.

For years, people with disabilities and special needs have had to improvise. Those with cerebral palsy that affected their hand coordination might replace sleeve buttons with Velcro. Parents of autistic kids would cut the scratchy tags out of their children’s t-shirts. But now, a slew of companies both new and established are creating “adaptive clothing” to meet these needs.

Target has been at the forefront, with a line of adaptive clothing for children, designed by a mom with a special needs daughter. The clothing come without tags or seams, a boon for children who find new textures irritating. Body suits are easy access for diaper changes, while wheelchair-friendly jackets have side-openings and zip-on sleeves for easier dressing. This year, the company added lines for adults with physical and mental disabilities as well. Tommy Hilfiger, best known for its high-end sportswear, just launched Tommy Adaptive, a line of clothing for children and adults with various needs, from jeans that fit over prosthetic legs to shirts with easy-open necklines. The shoe e-retail giant Zappos has also started selling adaptive shoes and clothing, from stability-enhancing sneakers to shirts with magnetic buttons. In 2015, Nike created the FlyEase, an easy-on zippered athletic sneaker inspired by a letter from a teenager with cerebral palsy who struggled with regular sports shoes. The company now makes the shoe in men’s, women’s and children’s sizes.

But while the large companies are only starting to see the potential of adaptive clothing, smaller retailers have been targeting the market for years.

Sasha Radwan, founder of SpecialKids.Company, was inspired to launch the online adaptive clothing retailer after learning about an extended family member in her parents’ native Egypt who was disabled. She was institutionalized at 18 and died 10 years later.

“[My relatives] do remember her, but don’t speak about her,” Radwan says.

After leaving a corporate job, the Australian-born Radwan wanted a career that gave back. So she tried to think of something that would help people with disabilities be better integrated into society.

“There was a big gap in the clothing market where the needs of these children were not being met,” she realized.

Radwan launched SpecialKids.Company in 2013 with the tagline “Where every child should be seen and not hidden.”

SpecialKids.Company sells clothing for kids with a variety of physical and mental challenges. There are one-piece suits that help keep children from accessing the contents of their diapers, a common behavior among children with certain developmental delays. There are garments with flaps on the midsection for accessing feeding tubes. There are socks with loops to help children with coordination problems pull them up.

“We design the garments around what parents want for their children, what occupational therapists are asking for, what children are saying they’re most comfortable in,” Radwan says.

Importantly, the designs are age-appropriate. While a 12-year-old may need to wear a one-piece garment, they likely wouldn’t appreciate one that looks like a baby onesie. So the clothing at SpecialKids.Company have stylish details like polo collars and raglan sleeves.

Kevin Iverson appreciates the consideration. A 49-year-old in the UK, he has various lifelong disabilities. Before finding SpecialKids.Company, he would scour the web for garments adapted to his needs. He struggles with incontinence and has a short stature. Though the company specializes in kid’s apparel, he finds their clothing a perfect fit.

“I’ve wasted a lot of money trying to get the correct clothing,” he says.

Other adaptive clothing companies focus more on high-fashion. Russia-based Bezgraniz Couture has shown their fashion-forward adaptive designs at fashion weeks across the world, featuring models who were amputees, in wheelchairs, had Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. British designer Lucy Jones has won numerous accolades in recent years for her “Seated Design” collections created for wheelchair users, including designs for garments like pantyhose that are difficult to get on for even the most able-bodied wearers. To create her designs, Jones had to take into account things like how seams might chafe legs constantly in the seated position, and the angle of the pelvis when seated.

Thinking about fashion in these new ways can be an innovation challenge. For nearly four years, designers, engineers, occupational therapists and people with various disabilities have gathered at Open Style Lab, currently sponsored by Parsons School of Design, to create disability-friendly clothing that doesn’t sacrifice stylishness. Each summer the team produces bespoke outfits for four or five people, who have disabilities ranging from nerve sensitivity to paralysis.

"Dressing is such a basic and intimate need,” Open Style Lab co-founder Grace Teo told CNN. “We hope to restore the independence and dignity of dressing to people with disabilities."

In 2014, designer Mindy Scheier launched Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit that promotes inclusive clothing design. Scheier was inspired by her son Oliver, who has a form of muscular dystrophy. Oliver wanted to wear regular jeans to school like his friends, but couldn’t find any that fit properly over leg braces and were easy to get on and off.

“Wearing sweatpants every day makes me feel like I’m dressing disabled,” Oliver told his mother, as she recounted in a TED Talk.

Researchers have recently coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the impact that clothes have on mood and health.

Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, studies enclothed cognition. He led a 2012 study, which showed that undergraduates randomly assigned to wear white “doctor’s coats” did significantly better on cognitive tests than undergraduates not wearing the lab coats.

“Clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves,” Galinsky told the New York Times.

With more than 1 in 10 Americans having some type of disability (some studies put the number significantly higher), and those numbers rising as people age, adaptive fashion is clearly a growth industry. It’s up to designers and manufacturers to make sure people of all abilities have clothes that fit their needs, including their personal style.

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