Subscribe for Free!

We'll send you our print magazine 6x per year!

Subscribe Now

Prefer email?
Sign-up for our email newsletter

Wellness, Wellness
By Sarah Watts

The Importance of Fashion-Forward Adaptive Clothing

If you ask Kieran Kern about clothes for people in wheelchairs, the first thing she'll tell you is that she hates ponchos. "Every single person in a wheelchair has been offered a poncho at some point," says Kern, who was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around.

Kieran Kern in Open Style Lab coat
Kieran Kern in her custom-made coat created at Open Style Lab in New York City. Open Style Lab

She hates that ponchos are baggy and shapeless, but she admits they're practical. "They drape easily over assistive devices, and for someone like me, who has limited arm use, they are the most sensible." She was delighted, then, when Open Style Lab (OSL), a nonprofit organization in New York City that collaborates with students from the Parsons School of Design, occupational therapists, and engineers to create stylish clothing for people with disabilities, approached her in 2017 to collaborate on designing a coat. The company, which started as a service project at MIT in 2014, is now a semester-long class at Parsons.

Kern knew just what she wanted: something form-fitting that she could put on by herself. In other words, a coat that looks nothing like a poncho. For Kern, these weren't simply fashion preferences. Accessible, stylish clothing, she says, is crucial to landing a job, connecting with other people, and functioning independently. A 2017 study in Applied Ergonomics backs her up. In an online survey, people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers told researchers that a lack of appropriate clothing prevented them from exercising or made it harder to exercise and affected their participation in social activities, relationships, employment, and life events such as weddings that require formal wear.

Fashion for Everyone

Recently, the fashion industry has taken note of people with disabilities. In the past four years, companies such as Nike, Target, and Tommy Hilfiger have launched shoe and clothing lines for children and adults with special needs. Retailers are designing zippered footwear that accommodates ankle-foot orthotics, shirts that snap together with magnets for people with weak or asymmetrical limbs or fine motor impairments, and shirts made with delicate fabrics to accommodate a sensory disorder. And business is booming. In 2017, Cat & Jack, Target's apparel line for kids, added a selection of adaptive pieces for children with disabilities.

Fitting In

It wasn't until 2013, when her 8-year-old son, Oliver, came home from school and asked to wear jeans, that Mindy Scheier realized the importance of accessible fashion. Oliver, born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, usually wore sweatpants, which were easier to pull on and adjust over his legs.

"No way could I tell him he couldn't wear what everyone else was wearing," Scheier recalls. A veteran of the fashion industry, Scheier spent the rest of the night ripping apart a pair of jeans and adding Velcro and rubber bands so her son could put on and fasten the pants himself. "It was really eye-opening to see the power of clothing to boost self-esteem and confidence," Scheier says.

The experience inspired Scheier to launch the Runway of Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit group that hosts workshops and symposiums on adaptive design and promotes the inclusion of models with disabilities in the fashion industry. In 2016, the company partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to launch Tommy Adaptive, which includes the same garments in Hilfiger's mainstream line but with magnetic closures and side-seam openings. That year, Tommy Hilfiger became the first major brand to launch its own adaptive clothing line. Since then, dozens of others have followed suit.

"Companies are realizing that not only is inclusiveness the right thing to do, but it's a lucrative business opportunity," Scheier says.

Style Success

After many prototypes and revisions, Kern and OSL created a strawberry-colored wool coat with gold buttons. Kern can put it on independently by inserting her right arm into one sleeve, swinging the coat to the other side with the help of a circular rod inside the collar, and then putting her left arm in the other sleeve.

"The importance of having adaptive clothing is something able-bodied people don't really understand," Kern says. "It's not just about putting on a shirt. People start to see you as a person with a sense of style, and it sparks a conversation other than, 'Oh, hey, I like your wheelchair.' Accessible style is like this gateway—to acceptance, socialization, easier employment. Everything."

Web Extra

Read about companies making adaptive clothing.