Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Design Notes : Designing for the Disabled

One of my long term interests in designing and developing clothes is to develop fashion-conscious clothes for the disabled. There are a certain number of sites that provide patterns and/or clothes for people with disability, however, these are for the most part quite functional in focus and offer very little for the fashion conscious. In an ideal world, clothes should be both fashionable AND functional, regardless of who wears them.

There are many different groups within the area of "people with disability", and each group has different clothing needs. For example :

• Wheelchair users have a set of very particular needs, especially if they are partially paralized;
• People who are ambulatory but limp or who have problems with balance and stability have somewhat different needs that those in wheelchairs
• Individuals with cognitive disabilities or memory loss need clothes that "make sense"
• Amputees also have very particular needs in clothes
• People with low vision or who are blind need clothes that have color markers and the means to have feedback about overall appearance
• Alzheimer's patients sometimes need clothes that cannot be removed easily
• Individuals with sensitive skin have special needs in terms of textures and comfort, requiring flat seams, for example, among other adaptations
• Some people may find particular movements painful, and need clothes that accommodate, enable or even constrain such movements
• Women, men and children all have different needs in each group

Clothes for such individuals do not always seek to "mark" the disability - for many people, some means of "hiding" what are viewed by many as "problems" may also be of interest. Fashionable clothes must be designed with sensitivity to needs both to reveal and to hide. Furthermore, fashions need to respond to different contexts. People with disability, along with everyone else, need both casual and formal clothes, sportswear, clothes for different seasons, "sexy" clothes when appropriate, and so on.

Less anyone object that this is a "small niche market", current projections indicate that the number of people with disability will triple over the next decade or so due to the aging of the population (a planetary phenomenon, not limited only to the west). One source indicates that within a decade, nearly one third of North American families will have at least one person with a disability. The issue of developing appropriate products for this population is going global, and for those more financially oriented, it has been suggested that disability products will be one of fastest growing sectors of the economy.

There are some websites of interest - I only have a small sample so far. The UK company Wheeliechix Chic designs and sells fashionable clothes for women in wheelchairs (see photo at right for an example). The company, which saw the light of day in the spring of 2007, has already won a number of prizes and garnered a certain amount of attention. I have been exchanging interesting emails with the CEO of WheelieChix, Ms. Louisa Summerfield, regarding the design principles they use within their products. They have developed an interesting collection of summer clothes and are now working on designing winter clothes - this has turned out to be a real challenge, but they are making progress. When I first encountered their website and their summer collection, I did a "mini-analysis" of the design principles they use in their garments, as follows :

• Short and/or open sleeves to facilitate wheelchair manipulations
• Wide pant legs to accommodate catheters, etc.
• Open V neck for comfort when leaning forward and moving shoulders
• Soft elastic at waistband for seated comfort
• Front zip where possible, covered for aesthetics
• Modifiable skirt/sleeve length using side strings or zipped cuffs
• Accommodate arms with built-up muscle (e.g. capped sleeves)
• Cover/disguise any fat in stomach area
• Flexible back area (pleats, zippers, elastic, etc.)
• Magnetic fastenings for ease of use
• Longer at the back so the clothes do not "ride up" in the chair
• More ease in the crotch area, when appropriate

For their winter clothes, they are addressing additional concerns :

• Keep sleeves short or cuffs that can be pulled or folded up, as long sleeves get muddy and wet;
• Use cloak-like garments that cover the front but are easy to put on - winter coats are a real problem to get into and out of;
• Use fabrics that are light but warm and not too bulky;

A Swedish site called fashionfreaks offers patterns adapted for people in wheelchairs (men and women). These follow some of the principles outlined above, and the site provides instructions for beginners on learning to sew.

Some sites that market general aids for daily living also offer a limited range of clothing. LazarusMobility in the UK is such an example - they market the WheelieChix Chic products discussed above but also products from other suppliers.

The Adaptive Clothing site provides a useful but partial list of sources for adaptive clothing. Although there are a number of providers of garments within the list, many of these offer clothes whose primary focus is function and not fashion. There are hence huge opportunities (and huge needs to address) in the area of disability fashion.

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