In the United States, one in five people identifies as having a disability and this minority group represents a collective spending power of $365 billion. It is also the only minority group that nearly everyone will be a part of at some point in life, as reaching old age, for many, can mean losing their able-bodied status.
Yet, there are still very few companies that adequately address accessibility needs, least of all those relating to clothing and fashion.
All bodies are often lumped into one group that only reflects society’s preference for portraying what we perceive as ideal, when, in fact, we are not all dual armed and legged, upright beings with optimal functioning senses.
Without consideration for the unique conditions and needs of individuals, the industry is failing a huge group of people.
Open Style Lab
Founded in 2014, MIT offshoot Open Style Lab (OSL) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary non-profit that addresses the lack of adaptive clothing in the fashion industry. In 2015, OSL obtained 501(c)(3) status.
OSL teams designers, engineers, and physical and occupational therapists with clients who have a physical disability.
First, clients educate the OSL teams around their disabilities and specific needs both through interviews and via shadowing clients throughout their daily lives at home, work, and out and about in their local communities.
From there, teams begin to brainstorm wearable solutions and create multiple prototypes, which they test every step of the way until a usable product is created that meets that client’s specific need.
To give a few examples, OSL has designed coats that can be put on and taken off independently by individuals with limited arm mobility, pants and skirts that aid in toileting needs for the mobility-impaired, raincoats for wheelchair users (who need both hands to operate their chairs and can’t use an umbrella), inflatable vests that increase the comfort of people with back pain, and suits cut specifically to various mobility devices.
The team works with clients with a wide range of disabilities, including those with spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, as well as amputees and the elderly.
Designed for function AND style
While OSL’s creations are designed for functionality, they don’t discount style—something that everyone has the right to express but is often only associated with able-bodied people.
Style is important. It is both a medium for personal expression and a tool to serve a person functionally.
As OSL puts it, it also opens doors: “A lack of accessible clothing or wearable solutions can then become a barrier for employment for people with disabilities.”
The company also points out that “products are often created without consulting the disabled clientele they seek to serve, often resulting in a severe disconnect between how able-bodied people perceive accessibility needs and what disabled individuals actually need.
A lack of meaningful clothing options through the existing fashion marketplace poses an enduring barrier to full social integration, in terms of both production and consumption.”
Kieran Kern has Spastic Quad Cerebral Palsy and uses a scooter to get around faster while also conserving energy.
She worked with her dedicated OSL team to create a coat she can put on and take off without help.
Her team came up with a red silk-and-wool, cape-inspired design with a circular rod that runs through the collar, allowing Kieran to swing the coat across her back with one hand.
“The idea of having a coat that saw the components that make me, me as just components and not as a problem that I needed to solve was really liberating in an identity sense,” Kieran told The New York Times. “Because generally, when you have a deviant body, you don’t really see yourself.”
OSL is led by Grace Jun, a thought leader and community builder for diversity and inclusion.
Her expertise sees her working at the intersection of universal design and fashionable technology.
In addition to leading OSL as CEO, she is also an assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design.
In 2016, OSL moved locations to New York and began offering fall/spring classes with Parsons on top of their open summer school programmes. The programmes see students working across multiple disciplines matched with a small number of disabled clients with a specific need.
“I think what I do is kind of like Tinder, or like matchmaking,” Grace told Forbes last year. “I find personalities and then skills and people who I think will match. And then I’m like alright, I’ll put you in a magic box and we’ll see what happens.”
In addition to the nonprofit’s work with fashion, OSL also does extensive work in research and development, looking for ways to harness new technologies and build designs that “exist in that space between fashion, tech and health.”
Grace is also passionate about improving the lives of older people through modified clothing and tech.
Prior to OSL and Parsons, Grace worked for Samsung in Seoul, South Korea, from 2010 to 2014. Here, she worked on cell phone design, wearables and UX design and had a chance to look at the Samsung Core, created with older people in mind.
“Ageing really is the disability we are all going to have and we better start figuring out, how we want to live our life,” she said.
“Disability overlaps with ageing and universal design,” Grace told The New York Times. “We need to see it as part of our life cycle. It’s something that we need to not only see from a human rights standpoint but also for its economic value.”
Through the OSL program, Grace and her students are looking at ageing and disability differently and showing that fashion really is important for navigating life with a disability.