OT, Fashion Design students collaborate to create adaptive clothing

Occupational therapy, fashion design students and their client in her new outfit.

Brenau fashion design undergraduates teamed up with occupational therapy graduate students to create adaptive clothing for young adults who use wheelchairs.

Director of Fashion Programs Charity Armstead and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Sarah Shirley Pullani led the combined project. It is the first time the two programs have collaborated for one project through two separate courses.

Five student groups worked with one client each, a resident of Champion’s Place, an accessible home for young adults with disabilities in metro Atlanta. In each group, OT students first assessed the client’s needs, then a fashion design student designed and created an outfit based on the presented needs. Each client used a wheelchair and had different individual needs and preferences.

Josh Cusick, one of the clients, was excited about his custom, three-piece suit. He wanted to look his best for weddings and formal events. He was overjoyed to be included in the project.

“When I first heard about the adaptive clothing, I was beside myself, almost speechless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. It was such a kind gesture.”

Enlightening perspectives

Designing adaptive clothing is a challenging task. The groups worked together throughout the semester to meet their clients’ needs, then detailed what they learned in class presentations at Brenau’s Norcross campus.

“I think the biggest thing was learning from the client about her perspective about adaptive clothing,” Lauren Neal, an OT student, said. “She told us about things we would have never thought of specifically, like a magnet for her zipper. That was a really difficult thing for her, so we wouldn’t have known that without her perspective.”

Adaptive clothing, while becoming more mainstream, is still challenging to find for many. What works for one person may not work for another, just like standard-fit clothing. 

Cusick felt like his student group did well meeting his needs.

“It’s been as smooth as I could ever hope it to be. You know, there weren’t many bumps in the road, I guess you could say. Because when you’re designing adaptive clothing, everyone is different, so it’s really not one size fits all.”

Collaborating, learning and creating

One common detail the students had to change was the depth of the seat of the pants, so the garment was more comfortable to sit in. Designs included different types of fasteners and reimagined garment structures to suit medical devices. Each group customized the outfits to make them fashionable and functional.

Fashion design senior Dennisse Rodriguez said the task challenged her.

“I was kind of scared that I wasn’t going to be able to make adaptive clothing for someone who obviously needs it,” she said. “But the more I met up with the client, and the more things I did, I became more comfortable with what I needed to change throughout the process.”

Rodriguez echoed Neal’s statements about the learning experience of working with clients.

“I’ve only worked with close friends, and I see them all the time,” she said.“So being able to do one fitting and then adjusting from there was a new experience. I also expanded more of my techniques throughout my design process – learning new techniques and going from there.”

Brenau students have partnered with Champion’s Place since it opened in 2020, providing assessments, workshops and activities.