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How To Make Fashion More Accessible For Wheelchair Users And The Disabled

Lucy Jones’s Advantage Blocks patterns propose a new design language for apparel.

For her graduate project from Parsons, fashion designer Lucy Jones addressed a problem her cousin Jake faced every day. He has hemiplegia—paralysis of one side of the body—and putting on clothes each day was a challenge. “He told me he wished he had more independence with dressing,” Jones says in a video describing Advantage Blocks.

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While no two disabilities are the same, impaired motion in a hand, arm, or leg can turn putting on a shirt or pair of pants into a long process. Jones thought about how to reengineer garments to make them easier for disabled and wheelchair-bound people to maneuver and to make them more functional during daily use, more attractive, and more comfortable.

For example, when people are seated, their bodies are shaped differently from when they’re standing—essentially waists, hips, and thighs expand. Jones designed patterns to accommodate more width in those areas. Additionally, it takes more fabric to cover bent knees and elbows, so she designed sleeves that expand like an accordion to allow more freedom of movement without bunching fabric. She also restructured pant legs so that there’s extra fabric. The idea is that the clothes look polished and tailored for each individual.

We sent a few questions to Jones to learn more about designing clothes for wheelchair users.

Co.Design: How did the name “Advantage Blocks” come about?

Lucy Jones: In my early research, it was necessary to understand the needs and desires of wheelchair users. In order to develop and perfect the measurements for seated bodies, I had to improve the patterns and garment block development. Put simply, I was creating an advancement to pattern development.

The blocks I developed act as tools and inserts that could improve the fit of standard and traditional patterns for individuals who would wear them. Hence the very simple name “Advantage Blocks.”

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Universal design is a subject that’s discussed in product design and architecture, but very rarely in fashion. Can you tell me a bit about why you think that the industry has been so slow to engage with the subject?

Longevity of design and “standing the test of time” are very important factors in architecture and product design, because buildings and products need to last. So if “things” are meant to last, you have to consider more factors that could come into play when the initial design development starts. Products and architecture consider more needs, and in a way predict the future and predict a number of outcomes. Who will use this? Who will navigate through this space? Disability is often accounted for in this decision process.

However, with fashion design—specifically fast fashion—the turnover and season change, endless production of products and accessories, is so rapid that every season has a different offering. In a few months, it will be replaced with something new anyway. Inclusivity, timelessness of design, and universal design are therefore overlooked. There are exceptions that require high-quality production for garments and accessories that become classics, but that is usually high end or luxury and not mass market.

How did you arrive at the seated anthropometric measurements that inform the patterns?

I studied a number of architectural books and product-design specs for tables and chairs. I saw how vital these measurements are in determining the design outcome. A lot of the measurements I developed myself are important to fashion design but based on architecture and product design. For example, “buttocks to knee crease” and “mid-trunk to back of knee”–these are absolutely key measurements for designing for a seated body. The tilt of a pelvis and in general the anatomical change that occurs when we “sit down” completely alters the way fabric and fit behave on our bodies.

We should remember that we are not designing people, seeking people who fit our designs; we are designing for people who need comfort and flexibility.

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It’s kind of interesting that a lot of fashion is designed for the standing body, but when you think about the way a lot of people work—seated, in an office—the need for designs that are well-suited for a variety of positions seems logical for fashion.

Yes, exactly! This is why I called the project seated design. My research actually indicated that for self-propelled individuals who did not have use of their limbs from waist down, it had nothing to do with “disability.” I want to point out that not one disability is the same, and I have primarily focused on self-propelled individuals, since disabilities are wide and varied. I hope to expand and include other disabilities in the future. If they were to stand, their body would be no different from what we consider to be the fashion standard.

It is true that nowadays we do a lot of things sitting down. At the office, playing computer games, driving a car, etc. So you’re right, it would seem totally logical to include some of these seated requirements into fashion design.

The patterns are all downloadable. Why was this important?

I want there to be more sharing and collaboration on this matter. I hope that my work has given a foundation for others to work with. I made many mistakes and had very many trials and errors in order to get where I am now, so my belief is that if I provide this information, people could take inspiration and expand on my existing work, rather than everyone having to start from scratch if they want to design with this mindset. It should be collaboration.

What broad-sweeping change would you like to see happen in the way fashion is taught and discussed as it relates to accessibility?

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I would like to see disability and accessibility taught in education from an early age regardless of fashion design. I think this would be beneficial to many people, if we know how to correctly address disability but also help to erase the marginalization and social stigma that is often associated with disabilities. If we have more knowledge, we should have a better understanding of how to utilize accessibility into our design practice, but we do need professors who are encouraging and open-minded.

The manual can be found at advantageblocks.com.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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