COLUMBIA — Just like that, his way of life was transformed.

When Chuck Graham got into a car accident at the age of 16, he had to start using a wheelchair. Everyday tasks had to be done in new ways, including getting dressed and shopping for clothes. And it wasn't easy.

Graham is one of millions of Americans living with a disability who face apparel-related challenges. 

"You can't try anything on, except for shirts and shoes," Graham said. "You can't try on pants, which makes things difficult. You have to go through the hassle of going out, picking something and bringing it home. Then, if you find out that it doesn't fit, you have to take it back out, get something else and all that." 

Research from MU professors Allison Kabel and Kerri McBee-Black shows how people living with different disabilities lack access to functional clothing. 

According to their analysis, the three main apparel-related barriers are categorized as mechanical and functional barriers, cultural barriers and sensory-sensitivity barriers.

"Mechanical barriers arise when someone can't physically do things like manage their buttons or zippers," Kabel, an assistant professor of health sciences, said. "A cultural barrier occurs when clothing, or the process of putting on and taking off the clothing, violates a cultural prohibition. For example, if the available clothing does not keep to the culturally appropriate standard of modesty, this could result in a cultural barrier."

Sensory-sensitive barriers, which are especially apparent in people living with autism, occur when someone can't come in contact with certain textiles or clothing tags, she said.

Kabel and McBee-Black, a textile and apparel management professor, conducted the research by asking members of focus groups whether they've ever been in a situation when an issue with clothing creates embarrassment. Nearly everyone reported they had, Kabel said.

They also asked whether the participants had ever opted out of an activity because there was nothing appropriate to wear. Many children said they were unable to join groups such as scouting organizations, sports teams or marching bands because the uniforms had troublesome fasteners or textiles. 

One option for people with disabilities is to have their clothing custom-made, but that can be expensive.

"There's a lot of opportunities for designers to create stuff that works around these issues, but they don't necessarily know that," Kabel said. "We're hoping that our work will call attention to that."

The lack of easily accessible adaptive clothing also reflects societal issues, McBee-Black said.

"For a lot of people, clothing defines who they are," she said. "It sets our moods, reflects status, and it has a cultural and social impact on how we define ourselves to the world. So it's a problem when people with disabilities aren't given the same opportunities to easily and fashionably express themselves through clothing."

Graham agreed. "I'd like to see mainstream designers create clothing lines that are attractive and fashionable and are also made for people with different needs," he said.

Due to societal norms, most people give little thought to buying and putting on clothes. That isolates people who lack that ability, McBee-Black said. She has made efforts in her classes to bring awareness to adaptive clothing.

*Every semester in McBee-Black's Basic Concepts of Apparel Design and Production class, she assigns a group project in which students are required to create an apparel line. They're assigned a target market, an apparel category and a price point. The students must research their given market and design a collection that accommodates their audience. One of the categories she assigns each time is adaptive clothing.

"That's opened up the eyes of a lot of students," McBee-Black said. "Many of them had never considered it previously and were quite appalled at the lack of availability for that market. We're taking it one little step at a time, but I'm just trying to educate those who are going to be in the industry about this topic."

Both Kabel and McBee-Black said simply talking more about the issue will focus attention on the need for mass production of clothing for people with disabilities. That could lead to more universal designs that can be worn by everyone or specialized designs created for people with certain disabilities, Kabel said.

Some companies have added adaptive clothing to their brands. 

Hanes sells shirts without tags, which are suitable for people with sensory sensitivities. Nike's new FLYEASE sneakers features a wrap-around zipper that opens the back of the shoe, allowing people to put them on with one hand.

In February, Tommy Hilfiger launched an adaptive clothing line for children with disabilities. The clothes look the same as the rest of his collection but have magnets, Velcro and other fastening techniques that make them easy to put on and take off.

While some progress has been made, there's always room for improvement, McBee-Black said. 

"Everybody deserves to feel like they fit comfortably in the world," she said. "There's an infinite number of avenues that can be investigated through research to push for more change, and it's probably never going to end."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

 

  • Summer reporter for the Columbia Missourian and journalism student at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in magazine editing.

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