Clothing Industry's Narrow Focus Sidelines People With Disabilities


Magdalena Truchan has used a wheelchair for 20 years and blogs about fashion and entertainment at PrettyCripple.com Magdalena Truchan
Magdalena Truchan has used a wheelchair for 20 years and blogs about fashion and entertainment at PrettyCripple.com Magdalena Truchan

The fashion industry has some catching up to do when it comes to considering people with disabilities. That's according to the results of a recent study, which surveyed 113 people with mobility impairments. The findings showed that about half of the respondents were unable to attend events like weddings, school dances and job interviews or even work out because they couldn't find appropriate clothing.

"The clothing industry continues to exclusively cater to able-bodied individuals despite the fact that people with disabilities often miss out on important life events due to clothing-related problems," says Allison Kabel, lead study author and assistant professor of health sciences in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, in a press release.

The study authors call on the fashion industry to take the millions of Americans living with disabilities into consideration when creating clothes. "The design fields and apparel industry could play a vital role in helping people with mobility disabilities navigate these barriers," they write.

I think people think that maybe disabled people don’t care about their appearance but I feel like because I take the effort to look good I make people smile."
Magdalena Truchan, Blogger, PrettyCripple

Designing for the Disabled

Some fashion designers have already heeded the call. Stephanie Alves is the founder, CEO and designer of ABL Denim, which provides premium quality denim jeans for people with limited dexterity and mobility or with sensory processing issues, like autism. She made the leap into the world of adaptive fashion after her stepsister became a wheelchair user eight years ago. "She wasn't getting dressed much. She looked on the web and all she could find was geriatric clothing," Alves explains. "So I started a jeans line because everyone said jeans were what they wanted most."

Alves modifies designs to meet the various needs of disabled people. "Someone who sits in a wheelchair all day can be prone to pressure sores. Seams can push and hurt and pressure sores can land you in the hospital for three months," she says. She strategically places seams to prevent pressure sores, and offers pants that are cut higher in the back to prevent them from slipping too low, a common complaint of wheelchair users. She offers one style with a zipper from the waist to the hips so the whole front of the pants can come down. That makes it easier for people with catheters, feeding tubes or colostomy bags to use.

Best of all, anyone can wear her designs, an important distinction for those who find traditional clothing for the disabled to be stigmatizing. "When I wear the jeans people don't know I'm wearing an adaptive jean," she says.

Magdalena Truchan, who lives in Haverstraw, New York, has used a wheelchair for 20 years. She blogs at Pretty Cripple and knows well the challenges of finding fashionable items that are also wheelchair-friendly. One of her pet peeves is shirts with cuffs that are too long. These can get dirty when they rub against the wheelchair's tires.

Another problem is coats, something also singled out by many respondents in the survey we mentioned earlier. "[It is] really hard to tuck it under your butt, so you look like a cocoon shape," she says. Coats also get stuck in wheelchair wheels because they are so bulky. "What would be great is if designers could create two slits up the back like a guy's business jacket," she says.

Truchan is hopeful that the fashion industry will become more cognizant of the needs of the disabled community. "I think people think that maybe disabled people don't care about their appearance but I feel like because I take the effort to look good I make people smile," she says. She takes a lot of care with choosing her shoes because people always notice them and her hats because "your face is the first thing a person sees."

Off the Rack

Another route for disabled customers who can afford it might be made-to-order clothing. SENE is a custom-made menswear line that serves men of all body types, including those with limbs of varying sizes. "It's a very tiny subset of our customer base but it's definitely a meaningful one for us," says founder and CEO Ray Li in an email interview.

Others make do with the options in the store. Chris Anselmo  who lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, has a form of muscular dystrophy called Miyoshi myopathy. He looks for pants that are wide enough to accommodate his leg braces and for shirts or jackets he can button up, rather than pull over his head, since he has lost arm strength. "I see things heading in the right direction now that people are starting to realize that this is a need and an underserved population, " he emails.

From Wal-Mart to the White House

Advocates for adaptive and inclusive fashion are starting to make more noise on behalf of the disabled population, and some retailers are taking note. For example, Walmart.com carries ABL Denim items, and the Inclusive Fashion Design Collective was formed to improve accessibility to attractive and functional fashion items in diverse communities. Tommy Hilfiger also has a line of adaptive clothing for kids.

In addition to the efforts of individual designers, there is Open Style Lab (OSL), a nonprofit public service project founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It runs a 10-week summer program where designers, engineers and therapists get together to create clothes for people with disabilities. OSL also offers an accredited course at Parsons School of Design in New York City. And the lab was part of the 2016 White House Fashion Show Celebrating Inclusive Design, Assistive Technology and Prosthetics, as was ABL Denim.

"Our mission is to make style accessible to people of all abilities," explains Open Style Lab executive director Grace Jun in an email. "While there is a growing number of companies in this market, it's still a niche selection of available clothing that [is] specifically aimed at people with disabilities ... Any individual with or without a disability should have the ability to express themselves."