MU students design fashionable, functional clothes for people with disabilities

Thursday, December 26, 2013 | 4:29 p.m. CST; updated 10:25 a.m. CST, Friday, December 27, 2013
MU students in a textile and apparel management course designed a line of clothing for young working women with limited mobility as a market.

COLUMBIA — Most people probably don't think about how challenging putting on clothes can be. The jeans that won't flex. The jacket that won't give. The tiny shirt button that refuses to go into the narrow hole.

This past fall, MU students in a textile and apparel management class thought not only about how clothes function for people with disabilities but how they look, too.

Instructor Kerri McBee-Black said her goal was to educate students about the need for adaptive clothing — clothes designed for people with disabilities — and to spotlight the need to make that clothing fashionable.

McBee-Black divided her class into groups, three of which took on the adaptive clothing project. One group focused on clothing for young working women with disabilities; another on clothing for young working men with disabilities; and a third on clothing for pre-teen girls.

Jordan Giffney, a sophomore, was on the team designing clothes for working women. She said the overall project hit home for her because her father has Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.

She said that her father has problems with mobility and balance and that sometimes it's hard for him to fasten shirt buttons. His difficulties motivated her to come up with ideas that would make clothes easier to put on.

One idea was to insert zippers under the armpits of jacket blazers. This would help a person with limited mobility in the arms to put the jacket on more easily, Alexis Spivak, a senior, said.

Function but no pizzazz

The idea for the adaptive clothing project came from Allison Kabel, an assistant professor in the MU Department of Health Sciences. She saw a need for "sensory sensitive clothing" — clothing that didn't irritate with tags or certain materials — and observed that people were making their own alterations. She approached McBee-Black about a collaboration.

Using a $3,000 Margaret Mangle Catalyst Grant, the two put together a series of focus groups in 2012 and this year to better understand the apparel needs of people with disabilities. Kabel and McBee-Black got help from Jill McClintock, an independent living specialist with Services for Independent Living in Columbia.

McClintock also served as a panelist, sharing her struggles with cerebral palsy, a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture. She said that getting dressed is a challenge most days but that it's even more difficult if the clothes are too tight or have buttons, snaps or hooks.

McClintock said she searched the Internet for adaptive clothing but found that a lot of it did not look stylish.

"Everything that I saw, I wouldn't want to wear," she said. "It seems very institutional. No personality. They function but have no pizzazz."

When McClintock shops at stores that sell fashionable, nonadaptive clothing, she often finds that the pieces she likes don't always work with her disability, she said.  She said she often has to have her clothing altered to make it fit right.

"I'm not lacking for things to wear, but you just can't pick anything," she said. "There is a lot to consider."

McClintock said she would love to see the designs created by the students displayed in downtown Columbia shops to build awareness about other clothing options.

The students who worked on the project also hope to see this type of awareness in the fashion industry. Spivak said she didn't realize how important specialized clothing was to people with disabilities.

According to a 2005 Scottish consumer study Home Economics: Fashion and Textile Technology, it is often difficult for people with disabilities to find clothing that is fashionable and aesthetically pleasing.

The study recommends that adaptive clothing:

  • matches the disability of the person so he or she can easily manage dressing;
  • flatter people's shapes and figures to enable them to be stylish and have self-confidence in what they are wearing;
  • use fabrics that won't irritate or chafe the skin

More focus groups, surveys

Kabel said the specialized clothing project is the first of a three-phase project. Phases two and three include the research done through the focus groups and future surveys that will seek feedback on apparel-related barriers for people with disabilities.

More than 80 MU students have been involved with this project since it started in 2012, according to an MU News Bureau release about the class.

Next month, Kabel will have the help of some MU occupational therapy graduate students in analyzing the data collected from the focus groups.

Kabel and McBee-Black recently received the 2013-14 Richard Wallace Faculty Incentive Research Grant for $3,500 to continue work on the project. With the grant in place, they hope to start collecting survey data that reaches beyond Columbia, Kabel said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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