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Designing accessible fashion for people with disabilities

Nearly one in five people in the U.S. identify as having a disability, but it can be difficult for people with disabilities to find clothing that is both stylish and meets their needs. NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson reports on the fashion industry’s moves toward accessible fashion, from Parsons' Open Style Lab, which runs a training program for designers, to Tommy Hilfiger, the first major designer to launch a line for people with disabilities.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Every morning, Christina Mallon picks out an outfit for her job at a marketing firm in New York. Mallon loves fashion and wants to look her best. But deciding what to wear isn't the biggest issue.

  • CHRISTINA MALLON:

    For the last eight years, slowly, both my arms and shoulders became paralyzed. They don't exactly know what I have. They think it's motor-neuron disease, most similar to ALS.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    When Mallon's muscles began to atrophy, her old clothes no longer fit, or became too difficult for her to put on by herself.

  • CHRISTINA MALLON:

    Fashion is a way to express your soul, and your personality. So, and me being a fashionista since I was a child, it was very difficult that I couldn't wear my remaining clothing because I felt like a part of my identity was dying.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Mallon went online and looked at clothes designed for people with a disability. But what she found was disappointing.

  • CHRISTINA MALLON:

    It was these bold– really bold colors that I would never wear. A lot of fleeces, nothing fitted, a lot of Velcro. And that just wasn't me. And you know it just made me really upset that I didn't even wanna go out of the house.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Then, last year, Mallon found someone who could help.

  • GRACE JUN:

    Our mission has always been to make style accessible.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Grace Jun leads Open Style Lab, a non-profit based at the Parsons School of Design in New York, one of the nation's premier fashion institutes. The lab runs a summer program that trains participants to create clothing that is inclusive and accessible.

  • GRACE JUN:

    One out of five people identify having a disability in the United States, which means there's a whole untapped market– that's marginalized and haven't been addressed.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Open Style Lab is funded by foundation grants and donations from companies including Polartec and Woolmark. The participants are students and professional designers, engineers and occupational and physical therapists. Christina Mallon's team made her a stylish coat, free of charge.

  • CHRISTINA MALLON:

    And being able to put a coat on by myself was the difference between me having enough confidence to go to work and things like that have such a big impact that people don't understand.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    One of the designers went on to create a whole collection for Christina …. Making a shirt with a silky inside so it's easier to slip over the head. A dress with a strap at the bottom that Mallon tugs on with her foot to pull the hem down. Mallon was so inspired she now helps run open style lab with Grace Jun, as a volunteer.

  • GRACE JUN:

    Welcome, welcome.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    NewsHour Weekend followed open style lab's 10-week summer program from day one, to see how it works.

  • GRACE JUN:

    Lack of accessible clothing is a barrier to greater independence.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The participants were divided into teams. Each has a designer and an engineer.

  • MICHAEL TRANQUILLI:

    I want you to hold it all the way in your palm.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Plus there's an occupational or physical therapist. They worked with residents of The Riverside Premier Rehabilitation and Healing Center in Manhattan. The first task? Getting to know the residents' needs.

  • ROXINE GASSETTE:

    Sweater type material is hard to put on, because it's bulky.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Roxine Gassette had a stroke and is working to regain the use of her right arm.

  • ROXINE GASSETTE:

    I'd like to use it again. And I don't use it at all.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Being unable to dress one's self is a big part of the lost independence that disability can cause. Roxie tells her team she gets frustrated waiting for an aide every morning to come help her get dressed.

  • MICHAEL TRANQUILLI:

    And so we're going to find a piece of clothing that she's going to be able to get on independently without assistance from her caregiver.

  • ADA STEWART:

    I get them up, the pants up…

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Ada Stewart has severe rheumatoid arthritis. Her team learned that it took her a full eight minutes to pull on a pair of sweatpants.

  • ADA STEWART:

    Sometimes both legs go into one. (Laughs) Yep, they do. Sometimes both of them go in the same leg and I just say, oh what am I doing?.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So they set about engineering something easier to put on.

  • WANDA ROSARIO:

    (Singing)

    Another rehab resident, Wanda Rosario, has Parkinson's Disease. She gets cold easily, and has pain and weakness in her arms.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Wanda loves music and singing, and she told her team her favorite memory was once performing at Amateur Night at The Apollo. So they decided to create a rock-and-roll leather jacket that she can put on over her head, which is less painful than pulling on from behind.

  • NICHOLAS PAGANELLI:

    In order for it to be wide enough for her to slip over her head, especially her bun, it would have to be pretty wide. It would be a boat neck at that point.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The teams must rethink typical garment construction – everything from design to materials. Roxie's team is trying to figure out how to make a wrap dress that she can put on using only one arm.

  • MICHAEL TRANQUILLI:

    Hand through the sleeve.

  • ALYSSA WARDROP:

    Hand through the sleeve.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Roxie typically required a lot of help getting dressed. But she managed to pull on a prototype of this dress almost completely by herself. For people with paralysis or limited dexterity, fasteners like buttons or zippers can be difficult. Roxie's team tried magnets. But it turned they didn't work that well, either.

  • MICHAEL TRANQUILLI:

    It was sticking to the wheelchair, and it made it difficult to maneuver the garment. And so we had to eliminate that.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Fabric choice is important, too. Many of the teams use wool, which is natural and breathable. Wanda's team discovered the synthetic vinyl they first tried didn't work.

  • NICHOLAS PAGANELLI:

    Yeah the vinyl was too stiff. It created these very unaesthetic wrinkles and lines and creases.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So they switched to lambskin which didn't wrinkle as much. And they created a guide within the jacket to show Wanda how to put it on.

  • NICHOLAS PAGANELLI:

    So, blue is for your arms, pink is for your head.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The teams visited the clients regularly to test out the garments and make sure they fit.

  • NICHOLAS PAGANELLI:

    How does that feel?

  • WANDA ROSARIO:

    I don't know, like it's still tight.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    As the summer went on, Ada Stewart's outfit slowly took shape. The team tested different types of pleats for the pants and devised a pulley system that will gather up the pants for her, making it easier to get her feet in.

  • ADA STEWART:

    Nice and warm. Look at them pockets.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Ada's hands get cold, so the team placed the pockets on her lap, where her hands naturally lay. She told her team she wanted to get rid of her wheelchair one day. So they developed sensors that light up to remind her when it's time to exercise…and give her feedback during the workout.

  • ADA STEWART:

    I love it. I love it. It's gonna be good.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In addition to providing independence, confidence and dignity … apparel can impact a person's job prospects. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 20% of people with disabilities are employed. And a lack of appropriate clothing can be a barrier, according to Kerri McBee-Black, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri.

  • KERRI MCBEE-BLACK:

    Certain companies, certain corporations will have specific dress codes, requirements in terms of how you, you know, present yourself to the public, so to speak. And that can be a restriction for people living with a disability

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    McBee-Black studies how clothing affects the social participation of people with disabilities. She says it can be difficult to find business attire uniforms and even coats and gloves that might be required for a job. And if someone does manage to find the right clothes, they might not be able to get in and out of them by themselves.

  • KERRI MCBEE-BLACK:

    It forces you into a situation where you're not able to live independently.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    McBee-Black says that while industry has largely ignored the community's needs … things are slowly starting to change.

  • ADVERTISEMENT:

    Remember that your disability is an honor, not a burden…

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger became the first major fashion designer to launch a line for people with disabilities. He says for him, it's personal.

  • TOMMY HILFIGER:

    I learned through having children with special needs that autistic children sometimes don't necessarily have the dexterity to button buttons and zipper and zippers. And we are very well aware of the fact that wearing something great affects your self-esteem.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The line is called "tommy adaptive" and it includes pieces for children and adults.

  • TOMMY HILFIGER:

    What's great about this is you don't have to worry about buttoning the button. You don't have to worry about zipping the zipper. Magnet, and Velcro. This is an example of like a men's shirt. Magnetized. It's the same quality. It's the same fabric. And same design as we offer to everyone else

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Was this a risk for you as a company to take this on?

  • TOMMY HILFIGER:

    Look, everything is a risk. I mean, if you're developing product you never know if it's going to sell or not. A lot of designers who just want to have a cool brand leave a lot of people out. I never wanted to be that brand.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Others are stepping up, too. Last year Target's "Cat and Jack" children's line began offering adaptive clothing that's also "sensory friendly" — no uncomfortable tags or rough seams that could bother a child with a sensory processing issue. It's the type of progress open style lab is pushing for.

  • CHRISTINA MALLON:

    There's a huge consumer set that's just been ignored. It just makes sense for brands to care.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In mid-August, with just a few days to go, the teams were busy finishing up their pieces … for the final showcase where they would present their work. On the day of the big event, the residents of riverside rehabilitation traveled to parsons in their new garments. Roxie Gassette in her wrap dress.

  • ROXINE GASSETTE:

    Hi! Thank you!

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Ada Stewart in her jumpsuit.

  • JULIE OSIPOW:

    Ada! You look so good!

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And Wanda Rosario in her rock-n-roll jacket.

  • WANDA ROSARIO:

    This is the most, the best!

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The designers presented to a packed room, and celebrated their accomplishments. Creating clothes that were fashionable and functional, raising awareness about the importance of inclusivity, and bringing the joy of style to everyone.

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