Designing for All Abilities

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Shopping for and choosing clothes is challenging enough that an entire industry of stylists, magazine editors and fashion bloggers has been created to help. But imagine if your parameters included more than finding a sweater to complement your eye color, or a backpack to match your sneakers.

Imagine if you were unable to use your arms to do anything (let alone get dressed), or used a wheelchair and needed to have easy access to a catheter, or had a spine with a significant convex curve that made pressing up against any flat surface painful, or had muscles that spasm.

Those conditions are reality for four people who became the “clients” of 15 students at Parsons School of Design at the New School this year. The students, who came from different majors, were divided into four teams and spent their spring semester creating clothing to fit their clients’ unique requirements as part of a class run by Open Style Lab, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to design functional and fashionable clothing for people with disabilities. The students presented their final projects on Friday.

“Disability overlaps with aging and universal design,” said Grace Jun, the executive director of the program. “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.”

After all, all people have the right to beautiful clothes that make them feel like their best selves, and nearly 40 million Americans have disabilities. That’s about 12 percent of the United States population. And as Ms. Jun pointed out, those consumers have relatives, caretakers and friends who have purchasing power as well.

“As a woman with a disability, I’m always looking at me being the problem and the clothing as being O.K.,” said Kieran Kern, who has spastic quad cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair. When Ms. Kern approached Open Style Lab, she was looking for a coat that would be easy to put on with the limitations of a weaker body and muscles that can spasm. Her team came up with a red silk-and-wool, cape-inspired design with a circular rod that runs through the collar and allows Ms. Kern 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,” Ms. Kern said. “Because generally, when you have a deviant body, you don’t really see yourself.”

For Christina Mallon, who has what doctors think is a rare form of A.L.S. (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) called flail arm syndrome, every task can become a challenge. “I can’t dress, feed, type, write, ride the subway without assistive devices or help from a friend,” she said.

So her Parsons team created a two-piece black wool coat with a capelike top to cover the arms and chest, and a narrow piece for the torso. “We split up the wearing process into two parts so it was easier for her to identify the entry points,” said Claudia Poh, who is working on a bachelor of fine arts degree in fashion.

The coat has wide arms that make it easy to slip into, boning in the neckline that prevents it from collapsing when Ms. Mallon pushes her head through, and a knit panel at the nape of the neck to make the top more fitted so it does not slide off.

“She expressed to us that she would like to go out more if she could and that she’s reluctant to ask strangers for help,” said Julia Liao, who studies product design. So she and her teammates made a device that hangs around Ms. Mallon’s neck with the MetroCard inside. It has magnets that attach to the card reader and set the card in place, as well as tiny wheels that make it easy to push through the reader using momentum created by sideways movement.

A third group worked on a wraparound vest for Douglas Balder, who has compressed vertebrae that have caused an outward curve in his spine, which can make leaning against flat surfaces, like a chair’s, painful. “We mapped out his back using Arduino and pressure sensors, and figured out specifically on his back’s anatomy where he needed more or less pressure,” said Andrew Sapala, one of the team members. (Arduino is a platform for electronics projects that includes a circuit board and software.)

Then they created a vest with a system that combines foam and an airbag that Mr. Balder can pump up for support in the lower portion of his back. “To have that kind of detail to one’s needs is a great model for changing the world,” Mr. Balder said.

The final Parsons team created a pair of pants for Irene Park, who had a spinal cord injury that paralyzed the lower half of her body and requires the use of a catheter. “During the summer, she wears a lot of skirts, yet during the winter, whenever temperatures are too cold, she can’t; pants have always been a problem since they make going to the bathroom a challenge,” said Alice Müller, one of the designers.

Her group developed a pair of shiny gold-hued trousers with long zippers down the sides. To ensure a good fit for a wheelchair user (sitting changes the relationship of body to fabric), they extended the back upward, took in the fabric under the knees, and added a thick-ribbed waistband to create a tucking effect for her stomach.

“I think the most important thing they learned in the first three weeks was inclusive vocabulary,” Ms. Jun said. “And the challenges they faced throughout the course had to do a lot with interpersonal communication. They were able to understand that no two people with a disability are alike. Being able to design inclusively means you have to have a collaborative process. We’re designing with each other, not for.”