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Fashion-able: Innovators tackle clothing challenges for people with disabilities

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Students create accessible designs for disabled people at MIT's OpenStyleLab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo: CNN)

Students create accessible designs for disabled people at MIT's OpenStyleLab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “Your clothing vocabulary shouldn’t be limited just because you have a certain physical condition.”

That is the mantra that Grace Teo and Alice Chin choose to live by after creating the OpenStyleLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Currently in its second year, the 10-week summer program that Teo and Chin host each summer brings together students of diverse backgrounds from around the world to study engineering, occupational therapy and design.

The students are challenged to create apparel that “requires both functionality and aesthetics” for people with mental and physical disabilities.

“The independence to choose clothes, the independence to dress [oneself] in the morning is such an intimate act that is integral to anyone’s morning ritual,” Chin said. “Why isn’t the fashion industry addressing this issue?”

The flagship educational program has trained more than 60 students thus far, some who have gone on to work for companies including Nike, which recently released the “Flyease” sneaker, designed for people who have difficulty putting their feet into shoes.

According to the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, 19% of the U.S. population identifies as disabled, a number that would make them the nation’s largest minority group if they were formally recognized as one.

Teo says that creating the program, and her encounters with clients, have opened her eyes to how much goes into getting dressed every day.

“OpenStyleLab shares more of these stories — the clothing challenges that our clients face, and what solutions they came up with,” she said. “We can get other people thinking, ‘What would I do to solve this problem?’ If we can add a little to that cultural shift in thinking, I believe we will be working towards a more inclusive society.”

Ryan DeRoche, a former cyclist, suffered a spinal cord injury that has left him quadriplegic and in a wheelchair, according to the OpenStyleLab’s website. His nerves are “regenerating, which causes him to be extremely sensitive to stimuli such as raindrops on his skin and causes him a lot of pain,” according to the developers of a special jacket for DeRoche and others with similar disabilities.

In 2014, fellows June Kim, Alexander Peacock and Kira Binder created the RAYN jacket, a waterproof jacket with a “lap flap” that would protect a wheelchair-bound person from getting wet and that would enable the user to quickly put on and remove the jacket.

Teo says that the need for practical — and attractive — clothing is necessary. “One of our online kudos was from a wheelchair user who said, “I not only want this jacket, I NEED this jacket. Wheelchair-functional clothing that is stylish is close to nonexistent.”

Mentors are paired with the student teams to help develop solutions for their chosen clients.

Maura Horton was chosen to help because of her business savvy and own personal story.

Her husband, Don, has lived with Parkinson’s disease for over 10 years and lacks dexterity in his fingers to get dressed by himself. To revive his independence, Maura created MagnaReady, a company that sells dress shirts that are magnetically infused and snap together, making the shirt look buttoned.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that primarily affects a patient’s movement, according to the Mayo Clinic. It often starts with a small tremor in the hand or muscle stiffness, and it gets worse over time. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports that some 60,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the United States.

Launched in 2013, MagnaReady has served between 10,000 and 15,000 clients. Prices for the shirts — for both men and women — start at $64.95.

“There aren’t many different options for people with limited dexterity, but not everyone functions like an 18-year-old. Some have never functioned at all,” Horton said, “A silver tsunami is coming; there’s a high population of baby boomers whose abilities are deteriorating and fashion is having to recreate the future.”

Teo echoed this sentiment, saying, “Dressing is such a basic and intimate need. We hope to restore the independence and dignity of dressing to people with disabilities.”