Adaptive fashion: An introduction to inclusive clothing for people with physical disabilities, the elderly, and the infirm

Conscious clothing

Text: Ryan Sng

Image: Instagram

In 2019, people are increasingly aware that disability takes many different forms — physical, developmental, age-related, and learning, for example — some of which may not be immediately apparent to outsiders. That lack of visibility and representation is concerning, as according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank's World Report on Disability, there were at least one billion people worldwide who lived with disability as of 2011. Moreover, that figure has likely grown since.

Nothing should stop people with disabilities from living full lives, although society has not always been sensitive to their needs. Stubborn obstacles persist when it comes to accessing public spaces, basic education, and fashion. Disability advocate Stephanie Thomas notes in her TED Talk (below) that there are only a handful of clothing stores worldwide that cater specifically to people with physical disabilities; by contrast, there are thousands of stores selling clothing for pets.

But things are slowly changing.

In June, we reported that the term 'adaptive clothing' had finally become necessary knowledge within the mainstream fashion industry. Tommy Hilfiger has thus far led the charge with his Tommy Adaptive line, hopefully with more household names to follow. A disclaimer: most of the prominent clothing adaptations on the market and in the news are specifically addressed to those with 'seated body types' e.g. wheelchair users, and are not representative of the broad spectrum of disability. This is likely because seated body types have been the most common and visible of disabilities until now (the universal icon for 'disabled access' is a person using a wheelchair, after all).

Below, a brief introduction to some of adaptive clothing's features, and how it can change the game for people with physical disabilities, as well as the elderly and infirm.

Jeans and trousers adapted for seated body types

Several adaptations need to be made when designing trousers for seated body types. For example, the chunky seams and rivets of back pockets on jeans can cause painful (and potentially fatal) body sores after hours of sitting still. Front pockets, meanwhile, are generally designed for use while standing, and are usually situated on the sides at hip level. For seated body types, however, they need to be situated lower on the leg and and closer to the centre-front of the body for ease of access.

When the body is seated, the back length of the crotch area extends, and the front contracts. Bottoms (trousers and skirts) designed for seated body types feature higher rises in the rear, to prevent sagging. In the rain, water can pool uncomfortable in the folds and wrinkles of the crotch area. Certain bottoms for seated body types are designed not to compress, and allow most rainwater and liquid to trickle off the body.

Clothing adapted for body asymmetry, and shortened or amputated limbs

Body asymmetry can arise from a multitude of causes, from accidents to degenerative disorders. Purchasing off-the-rack clothing that fits is virtually impossible, leaving many people with disabilities to absorb the cost of tailoring. Clothing adaptations designed to avoid this include adjustable seams via drawstrings/elastication/button-up details to shorten sleeves and trouser legs.

Fastenings adapted for people with dexterity issues

For people with dexterity issues (which can arise through anything from arthritis to Parkinson's disease), buttons, laces, and zips can impede getting dressed. Magnetic separating zips and closures can ease the process, but decorative buttons may still be used to give the look of classic shirts and jackets. The location of fastenings may also change — e.g. back zips for dresses can be moved to the front or sides — or be widened to account for a person's reduced flexibility.

Clothing adapted for people with sensory sensitivity

While it's rarely classified as a disability in itself, hypersensitivity to tactile stimuli is often linked to autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and other disabilities. The feel of certain clothes can cause wearers real and intense distress. Triggers vary from person to person, but clothing adapted for sensory sensitivity sufferers is generally cut loosely, made of soft fabrics and natural fibres, and lacks constricting details like stiff shirt collars and tight cuffs. The papery-feeling care labels found inside most garments are frequently cited as a major source of discomfort, and are usually not sewn in as a result.