The tech game is getting more innovative with adaptive fashion. But how much is it actually helping people with disabilities?

woman riding wheelchair near trees

Technology has the potential to change the way people with disabilities shop for, think about, and feel about clothing. Tech can provide clothing accommodations that not only work but also work better, which can be a game changer for a community that is often forced to choose the worst of the limited options.

We are getting closer to this point with each new technology. You can think of 3D-printed garments that are custom made to fit your unique shape or trendy jewelry that helps people with hearing loss to hear sounds.

The tech and fashion industries finally recognize the needs of the 1 in 4 Americans with disabilities. Innovations are not motivated by charity, it is clear. According to American Institutes for Research (a nonprofit social science research organization), the market share for adults with disabilities amounts to approximately $490 billion. Industries are responding to the demand of this market by dressing in ways that make their lives easier.

woman riding wheelchair near trees

Nike’s first ever hands-free sneaker was released in February. The brand instead used tension-enhancing elastic and a hinged sole to remove stress from putting on and taking off shoes. The original design of the Go FlyEase sneaker was made for athletes with disabilities. They realized the shoe had a wider appeal, according to one designer in a “Behind the Design” video. Nike made the sneaker more accessible and attractive for everyone, rather than only marketing it to those with disabilities. “It’s going to take mainstream adoption in order for [adaptive fashion] to get where it needs to be,” Stephanie Thomas, founder of disability fashion styling platform Cur8able, told us. “Brands can get a financial incentive to make more adaptive clothing options for people with disabilities when they create a demand from them.”

Another garment that has emerged from the tech revolution is Pauline Van Dongen, a Dutch designer. The cardigan was originally designed for older people. It uses stretch sensors made of conductive yarn to gather information about a person’s movement. This data is used to track their exercise and activity levels. The knit is useful not only for elderly people, but also for those with disabilities. The Vigour knit data can be sent to caregivers or doctors to help them understand mobility patterns and decide the next steps for physical therapy. Van Dongen said in a 2019 interview to FashNerd, “I like to create products that empower people with certain disabilities and see how wearables could contribute to human vitality & resilience.”

Ontenna is a Japanese invention that converts sound information to light and vibration. Kunihiko Morinaga, a finalist for the 2019 LVMH Prize, transformed Ontenna into a fashionable hair accessory and jewelry item to cater to the style preferences of the deaf community. The piece appears to be an avant-garde necklace or headpiece, according to most people. It creates light that helps deaf people perceive sound characteristics, such as rhythm, volume, and patterns. Pippi, a Japanese model who suffered hearing loss at the age of 16, was able to wear the device in a Japanese video series called True Colors Fashion: The Future is Now! The device’s flickering response to sound is caused by thin, flexible fibers. These allow light to pass through and convert auditory information into visual information. Pippi told us that instead of hearing sounds the device allows you to feel and see things and take in information with different senses.

Technology and fashion collaborations offer endless possibilities. Leanne Elliott Young, founder and CEO of The Institute Of Digital Fashion, says that “[tech-driven] fashion allows adjustments, edits and bespoke options.”

Clothing can now be 3D printed using technology. This means that there is no longer a long wait for custom-made items. The wearer can have sleeves and pants made to their exact measurements. This could vary from one limb or another. With a few tweaks to the computer, buttons, zippers, and ties that are otherwise uncomfortable or difficult for someone with limited hand or finger use can be changed. Customers with disabilities can quickly create items that suit their style preferences and meet their unique needs using technology.

Technology is not the only solution for people with disabilities. There are many benefits that technology can bring, but they are far from perfect. Thomas says that many clients don’t want more online, customized, or digital-first options. These can be costly to make and ship and often require returns if the items don’t fit as they appear in e-comm photos and digital sketches. Many shoppers with disabilities prefer to shop in person. They want to be able find the right style for them and then go home with their purchases. This is especially true if traditional clothing sizes don’t fit a person with a disability.

person in white shirt using sewing machine

Many clothing items for this group, which includes those with muscular dystrophy and people who have lost limbs or use a wheelchair, still need to be made custom. Thomas states that she is still cheering for old-school fashion options so that people can try the clothes on without ordering bespoke items. Her reluctance not to rely too heavily on custom-made clothing is due to her knowledge that it is a costly option only a few have access to. She says that every tech-driven solution will only reach so many people, because not everyone has access to technology [either financially or otherwise].

Thomas, who was born with one thumb and three toes missing, believes that the problem with tech companies creating adaptive fashion is their lack of understanding of the communities they are selling to. Thomas believes that many people don’t take the time and effort to learn about disability culture. She says that every company should examine their target audience and determine who they want to reach. “Let’s find out what our people want… [and] learn about their needs.”

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