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5 Ways to Design Clothing for All Abilities

Posted by Ryan Baker on

Written  By: Claire Hubley


When able-bodied people get dressed in the morning, most don’t have to worry about whether they'll be able to button or zip their shirt without help. They don’t have to plan their showers around when their caretaker will be available to help them dry off or how they will undress to go to the bathroom. Think about it, nearly all clothing is designed for standing, able-bodied men and women that assumes its wearers will be able to manipulate buttons, shoelaces, and zippers. For people with disabilities, not having access to appropriate and independently wearable clothing can have debilitating effects from keeping them out of the workforce to further isolating them socially. Luckily, some companies and designers, such as FreeMotion, have the initiative to design affordable universal appeal with all abilities in mind. Here are some ways they’ve been successful at creating universal clothing.

1. Magnetic buttons and zippers

Magnets are a godsend for all people, and especially those who find it hard to manipulate the precise functions of buttons and zippers. In practice, they work by snapping buttons or the bottoms of zippers together instead of having to fit them in the tiny buttonholes or zipper nodges. It’s such a simple concept and already used on ski jackets and by some early adaptive clothing companies!

2. Velcro straps

Velcro is another genius invention used in almost every product industry from toys, to manufacturing, too, of course, clothing. Velcro is especially useful in designing easy-to-wear shoes that can still be functional and stylish without laces. When it’s hard for someone to bend over to tie shoes or hard to move one’s fingers to manipulate laces, velcro straps give them an easier way to independently take their shoes on and off.

3. Elastic waistbands

I know that I personally prefer elastic waistbands to button and zipped pants no matter the occasion, and for people in wheelchairs or those who have difficulty with buttons, they make their lives so much easier. When someone already has to lift themselves out of a chair each time they use the restroom, clothing designers could at least make it easier for them to put their pants back on. 

4. Softer, less irritating fabric

Along with elastic waistbands, softer fabrics are less irritating to people with less mobility. As we’ve already noted, clothing is made for standing, so when someone is wheelchair-bound or bedridden, some fabrics or attachments can rub uncomfortably on one’s skin. Children’s clothing already uses mainly soft fabrics, so transitioning this practice to adult clothing would be an easy process for most brands and extremely helpful for disabled wearers.

5. Consider modifications for items similar to clothing

When you think about it, you’ll realize that people “wear” more than just shirts, shoes, and pants. There are towels, jewelry, glasses, bras, scarves, hats, and many more undergarments and accessories that we put on our bodies for fashion and function. However, each of these can present challenges to people with different abilities. By reimagining how to construct a towel or necklace clasps, designers can make their clothing more inclusive and accessible while making getting dressed easier for all people.

All of these changes are easy modifications designers could make and would’ve been there since the beginning if all abilities worked in the fashion industry. These design strategies also cater to able-bodied people by making their morning routine even quicker and easier than it was before. Accepting universally designed clothes doesn’t have to mean abandoning traditional styles. If anything, it opens the fashion industry to a more diverse market looking for new functional styles. By designing clothing with all people in mind, we also open space in our communities and industries for previously forgotten populations.

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