Future Fashion Designers Address Apparel Barriers for Consumers with Physical Challenges

by Amy Saffell

Being a wheelchair user brings about many obvious challenges, but often these challenges are only obvious to chair users themselves and not the rest of society. One such challenge is that of clothing. Chair users want their clothes to be both functional and fashionable, but much of the clothing found in stores doesn’t have the desired look for someone living life sitting down, doesn’t give the wearer easy access to handle personal care needs, or includes features difficult for someone with limited hand function. While not often considered by clothing manufacturers, clothing that takes into consideration the needs of people with disabilities may soon be more widely available thanks to professors and students at the University of Missouri.

In 2011, School of Health professor Allison Kabel attended a meeting to address curriculum changes on campus. As a social scientist with a research background in the area of illness, disability, and culture, Kabel had built an interest in how disability and culture merges and had studied how people who had sustained spinal cord injuries rebuilt their lives, often making their own personal adaptations in the world around them because a product that could assist them didn’t exist.
Drawing on this experience, her thoughts began to churn when she heard curriculum ideas focusing on global issues related to apparel proposed by Kerri McBee-Black, a professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management. As Kabel says, she “tossed and turned for days” thinking of the ways in which new curriculum could be developed to provide focus on clothing needs for people with disabilities. Kabel had learned what so many people with disabilities already know. There are, as Kabel says, “apparel-related barriers” for people with disabilities when clothing doesn’t exist for a person in a chair looking to dress professionally for a job interview, to wear a specific uniform, or to have a nice dress to go on a date while maintaining the function needed to maneuver and independently handle personal needs. The issue becomes more about the desire to be an independent individual than it does merely about clothing. Recognizing all the factors important to so many, the Principles of Apparel Design class was soon formed, fusing the interests of both Kabel and McBee-Black.

Averaging about 80 students a semester, Principles of Apparel Design is a required class for all Textile and Apparel Management majors and even attracts students from other disciplines. Groups of students are assigned a target market and consumer, for which they develop a line of apparel. Not all target markets are disability related, but a wide variety of disability groups and scenarios, such as formal wear, professional wear, and even Halloween costumes, have been represented in the projects. Students conduct research and then build an inspiration for their line. Ultimately, “the final submission is a storyboard that consists of flat, technical drawings of their designs, along with fabric and color options for the line,” says McBee-Black.
Students were challenged to
design garments for target consumers.
 This image is from a group that designed
for a working woman who uses a wheelchair.

McBee-Black had prior experience with disabilities in the advocacy arena, working on policy issues impacting the community, but she didn’t have experience in the development of clothing for people with disabilities. For her students, their knowledge of the needs of people with disabilities was almost non-existent prior to the class. As the students began discussing preliminary ideas with both professors, they presented ideas that weren’t functionally viable, such as hoop skirts for chair users, and as the professors talked to their students about the reasoning behind their designs, they discovered that hardly any of the students had ever had any experience with people with visible disabilities. They simply had no frame of reference from which to draw, and many of the students had dreams of the stereotypical glamorous side of fashion, not designing clothes for people with disabilities. The students were being forced to think about how their skills in design could be used to help people in ways that they had never considered.

These three images show 2D images of garments
designed for target consumers, respectively, that are: (top image)
 young working men with limited mobility and possibly using wheelchairs; (second and third images) young girls with limited mobility. While these 2D images
do not show the
 design elements that were included
for the pieces of adaptive clothing, the students were
challenges to incorporate those features as well. 

To give them the personal experience with people with disabilities that they needed, the professors gathered a group of people from Services For Independent Living, a local organization representing a variety of types of disabilities. Students could ask anything that they wanted to help them in their designs, and a dramatic improvement in the designs soon followed. While some pieces had to be designed solely with a special need in mind, the students realized that making a few minor tweaks to a design allowed for universal design; people with disabilities were no longer excluded. The program saw this research as being so valuable to the students that they applied for and received grants to keep the research going, now involving personal interviews and online questionnaires with people with disabilities and their caregivers to determine specific consumer needs. Kabel “hypothesizes that unmet needs translates to social barriers and lesser quality of life and finds it exciting that teaching and research are supporting and informing each other” as more is learned about what consumers with disabilities want and students take in those concerns and provide designs that create solutions.

The class has been in existence for a few years now, and they are hopeful to soon have their storyboard drawings become reality and to have their findings documented in scientific journals. Regardless of whether or not the specific drawings from the class hit the stores, something much more important is happening. A generation of up-and-coming professionals in the clothing world have experienced just how important it is to consider the needs of people with disabilities and how having proper clothes actually breaks down social barriers. “Now, students are more excited and interested in [disability-related] categories. We are seeing students with more connections to people with disabilities and with more of an interest in designing for them,” McBee-Black says. People with disabilities are one step closer to having another barrier removed from leading life in style and comfort thanks to the realizations of these future designers.  


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