Have you ever put on a shirt from your closet and found it didn’t quite fit right? Perhaps it stretched out in the wash or your body shape changed a bit.
But what if every garment you tried on didn’t quite fit? Or worse — it was designed in such a way that you couldn’t even slip it on your body.
That’s what many people with disabilities face when they get dressed in the morning.
While fashion designers, like Tommy Hilfiger, have started creating lines of adaptive clothing — clothes designed specifically for people with disabilities — the world of inclusive fashion still has a long way to go.
“Right now, there are fewer than 10 [adaptive clothing] brands that I would say are phenomenal and that I’d highly suggest. I’m basing this on the feedback from the people I work with,” says Stephanie Thomas, a stylist for people with disabilities and creator of Cur8able, a blog about adaptive fashion.
Missing digits on both her right hand and feet, Thomas knows firsthand the challenges of getting dressed when you have congenital anomalies, and she shared her story and details of her Disability Fashion Styling System© in a TEDx Talk.
So how do the 56.7 million people with disabilities build their wardrobes with so few clothing options available?
In short, they get creative with where they shop and what they wear.
Shopping outside the lines and making modifications
When shopping for new clothes, Katherine Sanger, organizer of a support group for parents with special needs children, often picks up pairs of “mom jeans” from a department store. They’re for her 16-year-old son, Simon Sanger, who has autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Because Simon struggles with some fine motor skills, it impacts his ability to manipulate zippers and buttons. His pants need an elastic waistband so he can go to the bathroom by himself,” says Sanger. “You can only find jeans like that for men in huge sizes or designed for people in nursing homes.”
While Simon sometimes wears sweatpants at home, jeans are part of his school uniform. And the style of his jeans stands in stark contrast to what most of his classmates wear: they lack pockets, they have a higher waistband, and they have a more tailored fit.
“He doesn’t mind them because he doesn’t care if his pants are meant for women, but the jeans aren’t a cool thing to put your kid in. Even if he’s not aware of the peer pressure, it doesn’t put him in a good place.” Sanger explains.
Elastic waistbands are just one design adjustment that would make things easier for some people with disabilities.
Loops from the waistband could help people with limited dexterity pull up their pants. Flaps could make it easier to change a leg bag. And snaps down a pant leg could help someone access their prosthesis.
While there are adaptive brands that will customize garments for their customers’ individual needs, some say the cost of those clothes is more than they can afford.
People with disabilities earn less than other Americans and are often on a fixed income. Splurging on a special pair of jeans isn’t always an option.
Instead, people with disabilities modify garments themselves — or with the help of a friend or tailor, says Lynn Crisci, a former wheelchair user and survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Chronic pain has forced her to adjust her clothing to make it easier and more comfortable to wear.
“You find all these ways to adjust clothes. I replaced buckled shoes with ones that have Velcro, and I replaced the laces in other shoes with bungee cords. That turns sneakers into slip-ons, and that’s much better when you have a problem with bending over and tying,” she says.
Fasteners can be particularly troublesome for some people with disabilities. It can be painful, difficult, and dangerous to try to button a shirt, if not downright impossible.
“You have to learn how to hack your life. You or a friend can cut the buttons off the front of your shirt and instead glue magnets on the inside, so all you see is buttonholes. You can even glue buttons back on top so it looks like the shirt is buttoned,” Crisci adds.
Etsy has been a great resource for Crisci to find clothing that fits her needs, even from sellers who didn’t initially set out to create adaptive garments.
“So many people on Etsy are crafters. Even though they don’t have exactly what I want, I can message them and make a special request, and a lot of times they’ll offer to do it,” she shares.
The need for cut and style improvements
But it’s not just about clothing hacks. Cut and style improvements are also high on the wardrobe wish list of some people with disabilities.
“With the way we sit in our wheelchairs, the back of our pants come really low and people have their crack hanging out,” says Rachelle Chapman, spokesperson for Dallas Novelty, an online sex toy shop for people with disabilities.
She became paralyzed from the chest down after getting pushed into a pool the night of her bachelorette party in 2010.
Pants with a high back and low front would solve the styling challenge, but they’re hard to find and typically more expensive than Chapman can pay.
Instead, she opts for tall jeans (often from American Eagle Outfitters) that come down to her shoes when she’s sitting and long shirts that hide her pants’ slumping waistline.
While Chapman enjoys wearing dresses, she has to be careful about which styles she chooses to wear. “I can think of a lot of dresses that would not work on my new body,” she says.
Because her abdominal muscles have weakened and therefore her stomach protrudes, she opts for styles that don’t accentuate her abdomen.
Floor-length hemlines typically work better than shorter cuts for Chapman, a lesson she learned when she was interviewed by Katie Couric on TV. She wore a sleeveless black dress that hit just above the knee.
“I can’t hold my legs together, so my knees flop open and it looks bad,” Chapman points out. “I was backstage and we used something, I think it was a belt, to hold my knees together.”
Taking a pair of scissors to your wedding gown is unfathomable for many brides, but that’s exactly what Chapman did on her big day. She wasn’t going to let her accident stop her from wearing the dress she had picked out with her mom.
“The back was a lace-up corset. So we cut it down from the corset to the bottom to open up the dress (I was sitting on that part anyway). I got on the bed, face down, and lined up the dress with my chest. All of a sudden, I was in,” she says.
The future of adaptive fashion
Thomas, the disability fashion styling expert, says that adaptive clothing has come a long way since she started researching it in the early 1990s. In recent years, mainstream fashion designers and clothing stores have begun accommodating a larger variety of body types.
ASOS recently debuted a music festival–ready jumpsuit that can be worn by people who use wheelchairs and those who don’t. Target has expanded its adaptive line to include a greater array of sizes. Men, women, and kids can shop for adaptive jeans, sensory-friendly clothing, diabetic shoes, and post-surgical wear at Zappos.
Thomas believes that social media is helping propel diverse body types into the mainstream and empowering people with disabilities to ask for clothing that works for them.
“I love that people are no longer apologizing for not having an arm or having three toes. People with disabilities are tired of going into stores and being ignored by salespeople, and wheelchair users are tired of having their bums out for the world to see. This is the time for people with disabilities to have their voices heard,” says Thomas.
With that being said, the styling needs of people with disabilities are as varied as their bodies. No two are exactly alike, which makes finding the perfect fit a challenge, despite growth in the availability of adaptive garments.
Until affordable, ready-to-wear clothing becomes 100 percent customizable, people with disabilities will likely keep doing what they’ve always done: getting creative with what’s on the racks, adding magnetic enclosures, sizing up, and trimming away parts of garments that don’t serve their bodies.
It requires extra effort, but Thomas says that’s time and money well spent.
“I’ve seen the difference dress management can make for people with disabilities,” she says. “It’s about quality of life and self-efficacy, that ability to look at yourself in the mirror and like what you see.”
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.