Think of all the accessibility amenities you've gotten used to seeing since July 26, 1990, the day the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law: Wheelchair ramps leading into government buildings; Support rails in restroom stalls; ATM keypads and elevator buttons in Braille.
Despite these improvements, people with disabilities still struggle in many areas, including one you might not think much about: clothing.
Cute Canes, Like Eyeglass Frames
Liz Jackson spends a lot of time thinking about the intersection of fashion and disability. She's a trim, tomboyish 33-year-old with a Jimmy Neutron pompadour, and she limps — sometimes a lot.
Back in 2012, she fell out of bed and ended up in the hospital, emerging three days later with a cane, prescription eyeglasses and a diagnosis of idiopathic neuropathy, an autoimmune condition that weakens the nerves in her arms and legs.
"One of the sensations I have is that run-down feeling [you get] before you get sick," Jackson says. "I have that all the time because my body is continuously fighting something."
The diagnosis changed her life in a couple of ways: She had to resign from her job with The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and she also found a cause to fight for. One day she was at J.Crew, her favorite store, leaning on her cane — it's shellacked in royal purple — and admiring the candy-colored T-shirts on display.
"I saw that they had eyeglass frames, and it struck me as so odd. You purchase eyeglass frames at a mainstream retailer; you take them to your optometrist to get them filled, and then you can wear them," Jackson says.
"Whereas with a cane, you don't have to take it to a doctor, yet that's not the thing that they're carrying," she says.
"And so I decided I wanted them to carry my cane. I thought it would be a good fit."
Jackson calls herself, and her blog, The Girl with the Purple Cane, and on the blog, she campaigns for mainstream retailers to be more inclusive. She lobbied J.Crew to carry colorful canes like hers — though recently, J.Crew told NPR it was declining, saying it needs to concentrate on its core business.
Jackson continues her quest, arguing that treating canes as fashionable items will cut down on the stigma against visible disabilities.
And the petition has made her ask questions about the fundamental use of clothes.
"What is the purpose of the garments that we wear?" she asks. "Why do certain things operate purposefully, whereas other things are simply sort of for appearance?"
Modified For Mobility
While Jackson continues to lobby for the fashion world to pay attention to existing assistive devices, some design students are working on making new clothes for bodies with special needs. Parsons School of Design graduate Lucy Jones is among them; for her senior thesis, she created Seated Design, a collection of clothes for wheelchair users.
Jones was inspired by her cousin Jake, who's partially paralyzed.
"I asked him what would it mean to him if I could design a pair of trousers that he could do up with one hand, and he told me it would be the next step up from not having a disability," Jones says. "I think it was that moment I really realized what fashion was and what it can be."
Jones tried out prototypes and fabrics with a fit model in a wheelchair because, as she discovered, "A seated body has different measurements to a standing body, due to waist measurements and the fact that our buttocks expand when we sit down.
"Our kneecap bends in a different place, so there are a lot of alterations that need to be implemented into the design process," she says.
Parsons isn't the only school tackling such a project. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, a group of students in FIT's technical design program also worked on designing clothing for people with disabilities.
The project was thorough. FIT professor Luz Pascal, who oversaw the students, says the garments "have to be designed, they have to be developed, they have to be measured ... [The students had to] go and make fittings with the different models. They have to document everything; they look at the best fabrics that are suitable for this.
"So these are ready for production," Pascal says. "They have done the entire engineering side."
The FIT students also discussed comfort with their models: a group of patients from the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. Among them was 58-year-old Air Force veteran Anna Smith, who suffered a spinal injury at work and now wears a back brace and uses a walker and a cane. And she definitely wants to look stylish.
"I love clothing," Smith says. "I love unique clothing. I don't like the kind that makes you look dated like a person could say, 'Oh, that's 2001 instead of 2002.' One that shows your unique style that also compliments your figure."
But the first design a student showed her? No way, Smith says.
"When she came in, her vision was some kind of Batman cape, and I'm looking at her like, 'You gotta be kidding me. A poncho? No, I don't think so.' "
Think 'Matrix,' Not Medicare
Erika Morales was that student designer. She created a long cape to keep the wearer's legs warm, but Smith told her the cape wouldn't work, in part, because all the extra fabric would make it difficult for tasks like using the bathroom. With that feedback, Morales tweaked the jacket, making it more polished and practical. Smith was pleased with the result: A sharp, almost Japanese-looking jacket in navy blue, covered with fine black mesh, with a hood that can tuck into the collar.
"We went from poncho to a rise in the front, lower in the back, a little more A-lined," Smith says. "It has a hood, it's coated with Teflon and it's waterproof."
Nas Rivera also worked on the FIT project, collaborating with an amputee to make a blouse with adjustable sleeves.
"If you were an amputee at the shoulder, you could just completely cap it off [and go sleeveless]," says Rivera. "If you were an amputee at the elbow, you could wear short sleeves." For someone who wears an arm prosthetic made of rubber, the blouse's long sleeves are lined on the inside, giving easy in-and-out access.
Some of the other improvements that the FIT students came up with include extra fabric and elastic at the elbows, shoulders and waistline for greater mobility; magnetic buttons and Velcro fasteners, which are easier to use than standard closures; and pockets at the knees, which wheelchair-bound people can reach more easily.
If this all sounds more like The Matrix than Medicare, that's good for both the clients and the creators — and, in the future, maybe a larger market.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 60 million Americans have a permanent disability. And millions of those people — like Liz Jackson, with her purple cane, and Air Force veteran Anna Smith, with her love of clothes — want to look good.
After trying on the new FIT designs as a model, Smith wants to become an advocate for accessible clothing.
"I feel blessed to be a part of something," she says. "I know it's divine design. Evidently even the accident and all that I have gone through, it's for a greater purpose," she says. "It's like being a drop in the water — that without all the drops there wouldn't be any ocean."
Meanwhile, Lucy Jones says she'll continue to work on her Seated Collection, and FIT grad Erika Morales wants to keep creating clothes for people with disabilities.
Someday, maybe the garments will go from being production-ready to being on shelves.
"We have all the technology to be able to modify clothing. It's just not a market that's been tapped into yet," Morales says. "If we're students and we can do it, why can't these big companies get ahold of the same concept and do it, too?"
And the new clothes look so sharp, all bodies might want them.