Hong Kong plays part in disabled-clothing design revolution

Adaptive clothing for the disabled is taking off in a big way and one local design centre is doing its bit to make dressing, sport and daily life a little easier for the physically challenged

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 7:31pm

When 36-year-old Mindy Lim attended a week-long basketball technical camp, it wasn’t the gruelling schedule that bothered her. It was the rashes she developed on her thighs. The friction from the fabric of her pants caused an allergic reaction which she did not notice until much later due to the lack of sensation in her legs.

Lim is a paraplegic. Most disabled people, like her, face challenges with their apparel. The lack of options poses daily hurdles. Allison Kabel, assistant professor of health sciences at the School of Health Professions at the University of Missouri in the US has been researching the relationship between clothing and marginalisation of people with disabilities. She found that the lack of adequate, accessible apparel creates barriers for people with disabilities from engaging in their communities.

“While it may be an afterthought for some, clothing and appearance are not trivial. What we wear matters in how we participate in our communities. Clothing can work as a form of ‘gate keeping’ which prevents an individual from being seriously considered for a job interview or social encounter. The lack of appropriate apparel can lead to social or economic exclusion for some people with disabilities,” says Kabel.

The functional, cultural and sensory sensitivity aspects of apparel poses a range of issues for the disabled, or “differently abled”. Traditional closures such as buttons, zippers and hook-and-eyes are difficult to manoeuvre for people with low or hyper muscle tone. Also, people with differing limbs or the seated body require different trouser and sleeve lengths and adjustable waistbands for comfort. Putting on and taking off clothing such as a T-shirt that has to go over one’s head also poses a challenge. The cut and overall design can be uncomfortable, seams can cause pressure sores and allergic reactions for people like Lim who use wheelchairs, or spend a lot of time sitting down.

Then there’s the cultural aspect. Kabel and colleague Kerri McBee-Black, instructor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri, analysed interviews from a focus group. They cite the instance of a female caregiver who struggled to help a male stroke victim put on or take off his shoes or socks due to cultural taboos around touching his feet.

Dr Frency Ng, director of the Troels H. Povlsen Care Apparel Centre (TPCAC) at the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says poorly designed garments cause difficulties in dressing, and most often don’t do much in camouflaging the disability of the wearer. This not only affects a person’s self-care abilities and dignity, but also increases dependency on their caregivers. TPCAC is the only dedicated centre in Hong Kong creating customised designs and care apparel for the elderly and disabled since 2007.

One of its youngest clients was a five-year-old girl who would keep hitting her own eyes. The centre helped design an overall that restricted her arm movement to prevent her harming herself, yet made allowances for her to play and write.

Apart from a full range of clothing for those with special needs, TPCAC has designed a raincoat that extends over the legs for those in wheelchairs, jackets that open at the back or side for those with limited arm movement, open-backed trousers for people with leg problems, trousers with multiple sides or inner pockets for concealing catheters, shirts with concealed pockets for pacemakers, impact-absorbing pads embedded in underwear for those with hip fractures, anti-slip socks and adult aprons.

Ng says perceptions in people’s attitudes towards apparel for the disabled in Hong Kong are slowly but surely changing. Caretakers, especially families of the disabled, are accepting the concept of care apparel as it has enhanced the daily lives of its users. “When we first approached the users’ families, they thought that normal clothing was good enough and didn’t want any special garments which would highlight the user’s disabilities. However, after they tried the products, the garments made their lives easier and improved their self-esteem,” Ng says.

Care apparel design takes into account four main factors – functionality, comfort, appearance and ease of management. Since the type and degree of disabilities vary, developing a size chart is a challenge due to which clothes have to be customised, driving up production cost. While TPCAC provides certain clothing services on charity basis, clients only need to bear the basic production cost which is about HK$200 to HK$300 per garment.

Based on her research findings, Kabel says designers have to consider the needs of people with disabilities when creating new clothing and apparel. In the future, she is hopeful the texture of fabrics, seam structure, fasteners and other aspects of the apparel will be created using a human-centred design strategy to offer more options to all consumers.

While some international brands such as Reboundwear, Koolway Sports and IZ Wheelchair clothing for men and women (all available online) have already been innovating in inclusive design, more mainstream brands like Tommy Hilfiger are catching on as well.

When New Jersey-based fashion designer Mindy Scheier’s eight-year-old son Oliver wanted to dress like his friends but his muscular dystrophy was preventing him from being able to fasten buttons and zippers, she was inspired to launch Runway of Dreams, a non-profit organisation that works with the fashion industry to adapt mainstream clothing for the differently abled community. She says her son made her realise the tremendous impact clothing can have on a person’s self-esteem. Existing adaptive clothing options are difficult to find, unstylish and far removed from mainstream fashion. Many parents and caregivers resort to altering clothing themselves, which requires time, money and effort.

Earlier this year Scheier and her team collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger to bring adaptive mainstream clothing directly to consumers. The 22-piece children’s collection costs the same as the brand’s existing children’s line. It has replaced buttons and zippers with MagnaReady magnets and created alternative ways to put on and take off clothing, which helps people with varying muscle tone. The designs have also incorporated adjustable trouser lengths, sleeves and waistbands, which address the needs for people with differing limbs or the seated body.

Scheier says she launched Runway of Dreams to create mainstream clothing options for people with disabilities, empowering them to dress themselves or be dressed by a caregiver with greater ease, as well as feel confident wearing the same brand-name clothing as their peers.

The feedback has been very positive. One of Runway of Dreams’ models who is wheelchair-bound told her during a fitting session: “I’m 13 years old and this is the first time I’ve been able to dress myself.”

The biggest challenge has been educating the industry about the underserved market that the differently abled community represents. Fortunately, society is now warming up to this type of change, with Lego announcing a new wheelchair figure and models such as Rebekah Marine on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week with her i-limb quantum prosthetic arm.

People are starting to realise this is a community of millions of consumers with massive spending power. Now, more than ever, brands and retailers have an opportunity to make a difference by being inclusive and creating adaptive clothing collections. Hopefully this trend will bring adaptive clothing to the market and make fashion truly inclusive.