The U.S. clothing industry is a multibillion dollar business with a range of choices that is seemingly vast. Millions of Americans with disabilities, however, recognize a lack of options that presents them with daily challenges. Now researchers from the University of Missouri (MU) are looking at the relationship between clothes and the marginalization experienced by many people with disabilities.
Allison Kabel, assistant professor at MU's School of Health Professions, says a lack of appropriate and accessible apparel creates barriers and prevents people with disabilities from fully engaging with their communities. She stresses the need for innovation in design, production, distribution and sale of clothing. "What we wear matters in how we participate in our communities," Kabel says. "Job interviews, court appearances, team sports and formal events are just a few examples of times when standards for appropriate dress exist."
Kabel and Kerri McBee-Black, an instructor in textile and apparel management at MU, looked at focus group interviews on the topic of clothing and how garments impacted everyday lives. They found that apparel-related barriers for people with disabilities fall into three basic categories: mechanical and functional barriers, cultural barriers and sensory sensitivity barriers.
The physical aspects of getting dressed were found to be a significant challenge for people with disabilities as well as their caregivers. Zippers, buttons, shoe laces and fabric texture can often present problems for those who live independently. Others reported issues with finding clothes that fit.
Cultural issues can also present obstacles for caregivers. The female carer of a male stroke victim from South Asia reported struggling to help the man take off his own shoes or socks because of cultural prohibitions around the touching of feet. Participants in the study also reported challenges with trying to dress children of all ages who had sensory sensitivities, particularly those with autism.
"Participants of the focus group had no shortage of examples to highlight apparel-related barriers in their day-to-day lives," says Kabel. "In many cases, the only option [is] custom-made clothing, which is not accessible due to high costs. Affordable clothes that can be mass produced are necessary to address specific apparel-related barriers identified in our research."
The study — also co-authored by Jessica Dimka, research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan — is published in Disability and Rehabilitation. Kabel says her future research will be focused on the potential for universally designed apparel and adaptive clothing. "While it may be an afterthought for some, clothing and appearance are not trivial," Kabel says. "For people with disabilities, the lack of adaptive clothing is not just a burden; it is a barrier for community participation."