Adaptive Fashion Is Stepping Up Its Tech Game. But How Much Is It Actually Helping People With Disabilities?

Photo: Courtesy of True Colors Fashion.
Japanese model Pippi wearing the Anrealage Ontenna device for True Colors Fashion: The Future Is Now!.
Technology has the potential to change the way people with disabilities shop for, think about, and feel about clothing. At its best, tech can offer clothing accommodations that don’t just work, but work better, which is game-changing for a community that’s often left to make do with the least bad among the all-too-limited options offered.  
With each new advancement, we’re getting closer to that point. Think: 3-D printed garments that are customized according to a person’s unique shape, or fashionable jewelry that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to visualize sounds. 
After decades of being ignored, the one in four U.S. adults (one in five Canadians) who have a disability are finally being catered to by the tech and fashion worlds. To be clear, innovators are not acting out of charity. The market share of adults with disabilities is roughly $490 billion, according to American Institutes for Research, a social science research nonprofit. A huge swath of consumers are keen to dress in ways that facilitate their lives, and industries are responding to this market.
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In February, Nike made headlines when it announced the release of its first-ever hands-free sneaker, called the GO FlyEase, which was designed using science and technology to allow wearers to slip their feet into stylish sneakers without having to zip, tie, or Velcro the shoes closed. Instead, the brand used a piece of elastic for tension and a hinged sole that, together, remove any stress from taking shoes on and off. According to the design team behind the Go FlyEase sneaker, the product was initially designed for athletes with disabilities. But in the process, they realized that the shoe was much more universal, as expressed by one designer in a “Behind The Design” video. In making the sneaker accessible and desirable for all consumers, as opposed to only marketing it to people with disabilities, Nike paved the way for a less othered shopping experience for people 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 Refinery29 at the time of the launch. When people without disabilities suddenly desire disability fashion, there becomes a financial incentive for brands to create more adaptive fashion options.
Dutch designer Pauline Van Dongen’s Vigour sweater is another garment to emerge from the recent boom of tech innovations. Initially created for elder wearers, the cardigan uses stretch sensors made out of conductive yarn that gathers information on a person’s movements which is then used to track the exercises and activity levels of people who cannot easily track them on their own. Because of that, the knit is helpful not only for the elderly, but also for people with a variety of disabilities. Data gathered from the Vigour knit can be sent to doctors or caretakers to understand mobility patterns and determine the next steps in physical therapy. “I like to develop products that can empower people with a certain disability and see how wearables can contribute to human vitality and resilience,” Van Dongen stated in a 2019 interview with FashNerd.
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“Instead of hearing sounds, [Ontenna] allows us to feel and see them, and to take in information around us with various senses.”

- Pippi, A model who began experiencing hearing loss at age 16
Ontenna, a new device out of Japan, converts sound information into light and vibration. To cater to the deaf community’s style preferences, Ontenna was transformed into a stylish hair accessory and jewelry item by 2019 LVMH Prize finalist Kunihiko Morinaga’s fashion label Anrealage. To most observers, the piece looks like an avant-garde headpiece or necklace. For people who are deaf, it creates lights that help wearers perceive characteristics of sound — like patterns, rhythm, and volume — as visual information. Pippi, a model who began experiencing hearing loss when she was 16, wore the device for a Japanese video series, titled True Colors Fashion: The Future Is Now!. When the device flickers in response to sound, thin, flexible fibres that allow light to pass through them translate auditory information into visual information. “Instead of hearing sounds, the device allows us to feel and see them, and to take in information around us with various senses,” Pippi tells Refinery29.
There are limitless opportunities when it comes to technology and fashion collaborating. “[Tech-driven] fashion allows for adjustments, edits, and bespoke options,” says Leanne Elliott Young, the Founder and CEO of the think tank The Institute Of Digital Fashion
Using technology, clothing can be 3-D printed, which means no more long wait times for made-to-order items to be constructed. Sleeves and pant legs can be designed and printed to the wearer’s exact measurements — which could differ from one limb to another. Zippers, ties, and buttons that would be otherwise difficult or uncomfortable for a person with limited use of their hands or fingers can be replaced with some tweaks on the computer. Using technology means that customers with disabilities can create bespoke items that cater to their style preferences and unique needs in a swift manner. 
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But while the potential benefits to those with disabilities are endless, technology is far from a perfect solution. According to Thomas, many of her clients don’t necessarily want more online, bespoke, or digital-first clothing options, which can be expensive to create and ship, and frequently require returns because items don’t fit the way they appeared in e-comm photos or digital sketches. Instead, many shoppers that have a disability want to shop in person, to be able to enter physical stores and find something that they genuinely like style-wise that fits their bodies — and then leave with their purchases. This barrier holds especially true when, because of a person’s disability, traditional clothing sizes do not fit.

“[Every tech-driven solution] is only going to reach so many people because everyone doesn't have access to tech."

Stephanie Thomas, Founder of Cur8able
For this segment of the population, which includes people with muscular dystrophy, who are missing limbs, or who use a wheelchair, many articles of clothing still have to be custom-made. “I'm still currently on the sidelines cheering for old-school fashion opportunities, so people can try on the clothing without having to order [bespoke] things,” Thomas says. Further driving her reluctance to overly rely on custom-made clothing is her understanding that it’s a pricey option available to few. “[Every tech-driven solution] is only going to reach so many people because everyone doesn't have access to tech, [either for financial reasons or otherwise],” she says.
But Thomas, who was born missing one thumb and three toes, says the issue with most tech companies making adaptive fashion is that they lack a real understanding of the community they’re selling to. She thinks many are not taking the necessary time or effort to get to know disability culture. “Each company should look at their demographic and decide who they are trying to reach,” she says. “Let's go find our people within our demographic and ask them what they want... [and] learn more about their needs.” 

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