The helper first wrestles Ryan DeRoche’s clenched left hand, then his stiff arm, into his coat sleeve. DeRoche’s right arm also refuses to bend, rigid from a bike accident three years ago that battered his spinal cord and paralyzed much of his body.
Now the real battle of friction and patience begins. The black coat is taut, stretched across DeRoche’s back as he sits in his power wheelchair. He encourages the helper to push his other arm through the second sleeve. “You won’t hurt me,” DeRoche, 32, tells her, a student named Kira Bender. She pulls, pushes, tugs. “Go, go, go, go, go!” DeRoche urges. Finally, success. “You got it,” he cheers.
Total time elapsed: four aggravating minutes.
Nearly a quarter-century after the Americans with Disabilities Act made buildings, jobs, and phones more accessible, most clothing is still as inaccessible as ever. Pants are designed to fit — and look best — when wearers are standing, not sitting in wheelchairs. Zippers, buttons, jewelry clasps, tight-fitting dresses, and jackets with linings are daily grievances for anyone with limited dexterity. Some prosthetic limbs chafe against — or do not fit beneath — clothing designed for able bodies.
It is exactly this problem that DeRoche has asked the new MITOpen Style Labto fix. His team includes an engineering student, a design student, and Bender, a Boston University master’s student in occupational therapy. The goal: Create a coat that fits his needs.
The Style Lab is the brainchild of Grace Teo, who received a PhD from MIT in medical engineering this spring. She and co-chair Alice Tin chose 24 students from MIT and other colleges, creating eight teams to design clothing for clients with amputations, spinal cord injuries, early-onset arthritis, and other disabilities.
For DeRoche, finding an accessible jacket is more than a matter of convenience. Like many quadriplegics, he is vulnerable to pneumonia. Sometimes he endures the cold rather than tussling with a coat.
“This may be one of those new frontiers,” said Oz Mondejar, senior vice president of mission and advocacy atSpaulding Rehabilitation Network. “It’s still not there. It takes advocacy.”
Mondejar, who was born without a right hand, knows well the frustration of inaccessible fashion. His job requires him to wear a tie, and he struggles every morning to fasten the tight neck button on his dress shirt with one hand.
The few companies in the US that design accessible clothing tend to target the elderly market. One of the Style Lab’s clients, a professor who uses a wheelchair, cannot find formal clothing that allows him to use the bathroom independently.
“There’s a couple of companies that make clothing and it looks horrible,” DeRoche said. “It’s like granny pants. They have elastic waistbands.”
The lab, created by Teo and Tin, was launched with funding from MIT and private donors, includingEileen Fisher, the women’s clothing company. Each team is given $500 to develop its project. The students are not paid, but they hold the patents and can market the clothing that they develop.
Teo and Tin hope to repeat the program, which meets on Saturdays during the summer, next year. The students, who work with mentors, made their final presentations at MIT Aug. 16 and will discuss their designs at the Museum of Science in October.