Designing “Adaptive Clothing” For People with Disabilities

Companies are releasing new inclusive lines that solve some of the dressing challenges that people with physical and mental disabilities face

Most of us don’t think a whole lot about getting dressed. Sure, we might care about our style, but the actual process of putting on clothes—pants one leg at a time, button through the button hole—is as automatic as breathing.

But imagine you only have one arm. How do you button your shirt now? What if you receive nutrition through a feeding tube implanted in your stomach? Wearing that cute dress means you can’t eat in public, lest you flash everyone in the room. Think about what the tight waistband of your jeans might feel like if you were autistic and had magnified sensitivity to touch.

For years, people with disabilities and special needs have had to improvise. Those with cerebral palsy that affected their hand coordination might replace sleeve buttons with Velcro. Parents of autistic kids would cut the scratchy tags out of their children’s t-shirts. But now, a slew of companies both new and established are creating “adaptive clothing” to meet these needs.

Target has been at the forefront, with a line of adaptive clothing for children, designed by a mom with a special needs daughter. The clothing come without tags or seams, a boon for children who find new textures irritating. Body suits are easy access for diaper changes, while wheelchair-friendly jackets have side-openings and zip-on sleeves for easier dressing. This year, the company added lines for adults with physical and mental disabilities as well. Tommy Hilfiger, best known for its high-end sportswear, just launched Tommy Adaptive, a line of clothing for children and adults with various needs, from jeans that fit over prosthetic legs to shirts with easy-open necklines. The shoe e-retail giant Zappos has also started selling adaptive shoes and clothing, from stability-enhancing sneakers to shirts with magnetic buttons. In 2015, Nike created the FlyEase, an easy-on zippered athletic sneaker inspired by a letter from a teenager with cerebral palsy who struggled with regular sports shoes. The company now makes the shoe in men’s, women’s and children’s sizes.

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