(Updated March 2011)
By Bhavna Mehta
My husband George wears a skirt. His hips were fused after a mountain-climbing accident 34 years ago and he can’t reach low enough to hold onto his trousers. After struggling for a number of years, he decided that putting his feet in one hole would be much simpler, so he designed a denim “skirt” that has an elastic waist and tapers toward the feet. There are 4 large pockets, two on either side of the longest zipper I have ever seen. “It was terrifying at first,” he told me over lunch, “but I got over it in a day.” “Don’t you want to look, hmmm … uh ‘normal’?” I said to this warm intelligent professor whose resume would land him a job in quite a few multinational companies. “Been there, done that, forgot about it,” he replied.
Most of us do want to look our best with our wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and scooters. But oh, how diverse we are! How demanding we can be about fashion, clothing and accessories. How different our bodies, capabilities and preferences can be — about putting clothes on and taking them off, about which pocket can be used and which seam hurts, about spilling and soiling. Where do we look to meet these varying needs?
Fortunately, many have seen the need for adaptive clothing–fashion designers and business entrepreneurs, caregivers and health-care professionals, and of course, people with disabilities. It’s all about making clothing and accessories durable, fashionable and easy to use, whether we’re talking about pants, jeans, jackets, blouses, shirts, capes, leg-warmers, clothing protectors, loungewear, underwear or footwear.
Pants and jeans for wheelers have evolved to meet our needs. Obviously clothes fit differently when we are seated. Waists thicken and torsos shorten. Thus, almost all sitter pants have a higher rise in the back for seated comfort and ease of keeping that shirt tucked in. Some have discreet elastic waistbands to provide a better hug. Extra material that could bunch up in front is removed and the zipper runs longer in the crotch. To prevent skin sores, most pants don’t have back pockets. Some have fake pockets and fake buttons. Most manufacturers offer an optional Velcro fly.
Shirts and blouses have their interesting adaptations, too. Shirts are made longer in the back to keep them tucked in and shorter in the front to prevent bunching up. Both back and front closures are common. Velcro may be used under a fake button strip or along the side seam. Shoulder closures make some tops easier to put on. Shirts may have wider neck openings and deeper armholes to provide extra space for freedom of movement.
To complete the picture, accessories are a must. Rain and winter capes usually have shorter backs to cover equipment or behind-the-chair bags without catching on wheels. For rain and cold, Supplex and Polartec fleece linings work well. Clothing protectors can be fancy, especially vests and scarves. Soft cotton body suits give the appearance of layering and may have a crotch closure for easy access to absorptive pads and drainage devices. Shoes with wider openings and Velcro closures are also available.
A word of warning: In the world of functional fashion, women might be somewhat under-served. Maybe it is simply a supply-and-demand issue, or maybe it’s because we wom