From Canes To Closures, Designing With Style For People With Disabilities Almost 60 million Americans have a permanent disability, but the fashion industry hasn't tapped into that market. Activists and designers are trying to change that, a signature and a stitch at a time.

From Canes To Closures, Designing With Style For People With Disabilities

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The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25 tomorrow. The law's led to better access in housing, transportation, workplaces - the list goes on. But people with disabilities still struggle in many areas, including one you might not think much about - clothing. From The Seams, an occasional series about fashion as culture, Jacki Lyden reports.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: I went shopping in downtown Baltimore with Liz Jackson. She's a trim 33-year-old tomboy with a Jimmy Neutron pompadour, and she limps - sometimes a lot. Back in 2012, she fell out of bed. Then she ended up in the hospital. She emerged three days later with a cane, prescription eyeglasses and a diagnosis - idiopathic neuropathy, an autoimmune condition that weakens the nerves in her arms and legs.

LIZ JACKSON: So one of the sensations I have is that run-down feeling before you get sick. I have that all the time because my body is continuously fighting something.

LYDEN: The diagnosis changed her life in a couple of ways. She had to resign from her job with "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," but she found a cause. One day she was at J.Crew, her favorite store. She was leaning on her cane - it's painted a cool royal purple - and admiring the candy-colored T-shirts on display.

JACKSON: Then I saw that they had eyeglass frames and it struck me as so odd. You purchase eyeglass frames at a mainstream retailer, you take them to your optometrist to get them filled, and then you can wear them. Whereas with a cane, you don't have to take it to a doctor, yet that's not the thing that they're carrying, and so I decided I wanted them to carry my cane. I thought it would be a good fit.

LYDEN: Jackson calls herself and her blog "The Girl With The Purple Cane." On her blog, she campaigns for mainstream retailers to be more inclusive. She lobbied J.Crew to carry canes, though the store ultimately declined. It made her ask questions about the fundamental use of clothes.

JACKSON: What is the purpose of the garments that we wear? Why do certain things operate purposefully, whereas other things are simply sort of for appearance?

LYDEN: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 60 million Americans have a permanent disability and millions of those people, like Liz Jackson, want to look good. Some design students have been working on smart clothes for bodies with special needs, like Lucy Jones. For her senior thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York, she made patterns for clothes for people in wheelchairs, inspired by her cousin Jake, who's partially paralyzed.

LUCY JONES: So I asked him what would it mean to him if I could design a pair of trousers that he could do up with one hand, and he told me it would be the next step up from not having a disability. And I think it was that moment I really realized what fashion was and what it can be.

LYDEN: Jones collaborated with a FIT model in a wheelchair.

JONES: Because a seated body has different measurements to a standing body, you know, due to, like, waist measurements and the fact our buttocks expand when we sit down, our kneecap bends in a different place to when we're standing, so there are a lot of alterations that need to be implemented into the design process.

LYDEN: Parsons isn't the only school tackling design for the disabled. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, Professor Luz Pascal oversaw a group project dedicated to this.

LUZ PASCAL: The garments have to be designed. They have to be developed, they have to be measured. They have to be specked. They have to go and make fittings with the different models. They have to document everything. They look at the best fabrics that are suitable for this - so these are ready for production. They have done the entire engineering side.

LYDEN: The design students also talked about comfort with their models, a group of patients from the VA's New York Harbor Healthcare System. Fifty-eight-year-old Air Force veteran Anna Smith was among them. She suffered a spinal injury at work and now wears a back brace and uses a walker and a cane. And you bet she wants to look stylish.

ANNA SMITH: I love clothing. I love unique clothing. I don't like the kind that makes you look dated, like a person could say, oh, that's 2001 instead of 2002. One that shows your unique style that also compliments your figure.

LYDEN: But the first design a student showed her - no way.

SMITH: When she came in, her vision was some kind of Batman cape and I'm looking at her like, you got to be kidding me. A poncho? No, I don't think so.

LYDEN: Erika Morales was that student designer.

ERIKA MORALES: I had a cape and I wanted to make it really long just to keep their legs warm. And she was like, well, that's not going to work because when you go to the bathroom, what's going to happen to all that room (laughter)? And then also, I didn't think about the bunching in the back.

LYDEN: With that feedback, Morales tweaked the jacket, making it more polished and practical. And Smith was happy.

SMITH: We went from poncho to a rise in the front, lower in the back, little more A-line, the long sleeves - I could show you the garment. It has a hood. It's coated with Teflon and then it's waterproof.

LYDEN: She did show it to me and it is sharp - almost Japanese-looking, kind of like a folded origami jacket - in navy blue, covered with fine black mesh with a hood that can tuck into the collar. Nas Rivera also worked on that FIT project. She collaborated with an amputee to make a blouse with adjustable sleeves.

NAS RIVERA: So if you were an amputee at the shoulder, you could just completely cap it off. If you're an amputee at the elbow, you could wear, like, short sleeves. Or if you have long sleeves, it's lined on the inside so that if you are wearing, like, a prosthetic that's rubber, it will give you easy access in and out.

LYDEN: Some of the other improvements - extra fabric and elastic at the elbows, shoulders and waistline for greater mobility, magnetic buttons and Velcro closures, knee pockets - all easier to use. If this all sounds more like "The Matrix" than Medicare, that's good for both the customers and the creators. FIT grad Erika Morales wants to keep creating clothes for the disabled.

MORALES: We have all the technology to be able to modify clothing. It's just not a market that's been tapped into yet. If we're students and we can do it, why can't these big companies get a hold of the same concept and do it, too?

LYDEN: Air Force veteran Anna Smith wants to move from being a FIT model to being a stylish advocate.

SMITH: I feel blessed to be a part of something. I know it's divine design. Evidently even the accident and all that I've gone through, it's for a greater purpose. It's like being a drop in the water, that without all the drops, there wouldn't be any ocean.

LYDEN: And the new clothes look so sharp, all bodies might want them. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

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