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 MIT Open Style Lab to 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 at Spaulding 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, including Eileen 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.
One of the Style Lab’s clients is Mike Benning, whose left arm was amputated below the elbow to remove cancer when he was 14. Last year, he was fitted with the most technologically advanced prosthetic hand in the world. Now he can use a touch-screen phone, type on a computer, and hold a nail while he hammers it.
Still, there have been some problems. When Benning — the business development manager of Hanger Clinic, which provides orthotic and prosthetic devices — puts on a coat, the sticky silicone of his new hand gets caught in the lining.
First, his team tried, unsuccessfully, to find a fabric that wouldn’t stick. Then, with a 3-D printer, they created a sheath for his hand that kept the silicone away from the coat. The team is working with a lawyer to patent their inventions.
Electrodes rest on the skin of his residual limb, receiving impulses from his nerves and relaying them to the prosthetic hand. Problems arise when he sweats and the moisture interferes with the electrical conductivity. He might try to open his hand, and instead, his wrist might rotate. So the team has created several devices, including one that would wick moisture away from the skin.
“I think if [the Open Style Lab team] can come up with a solution to this and improve it, it has the potential to improve the lives of millions around the world,” Benning said.
Barbara Harrison, another Open Style Lab client, underwent a voluntary amputation in 2013 after she suffered through three years of intense pain when a broken foot never healed properly. A half-dozen specialists could not ease her agony.
After the surgery, she spent a few weeks at Spaulding. She picked out a prosthetic leg with a swirly blue pattern called “Groovy.”
“Spaulding did a very good job of teaching me how to transfer from chair to wheelchair, and how to use the walker, and how to get dressed,” she said. “Clothes should have been the easy part.”
Instead, she struggled to find pants that fit over the device and could be pulled up over her knee to adjust Groovy during the day. It was easier to wear shorts or capris, so all last year, even through the iciest days of winter, that is what she did. But, she notes, “I can’t go to church in shorts.”
One Tuesday night this summer, Deniz Aksel and Niki Patel ring the doorbell of her first-floor apartment in Winthrop, bringing the newest version of one of their prototypes.
Aksel, an MIT engineering student from Turkey, and Patel, a graduate student in occupational therapy at American International College, have brought Harrison their invention: a fabric device that wraps around the top of Harrison’s prosthetic, secured with velcro, to help her pants slide over the device. They call it the Prosthetic Ridge Guard, or PRG. Patel sits on the floor at Harrison’s feet and helps her put it on.
“How’s that feel?” Aksel asks. Harrison walks around her living room.
“It’s not bugging me!” she says, surprised.
Responds Aksel: “That’s what we want to hear.”
Aksel has been grinning impishly all night about “some crazier ideas” the team has been planning. One, he says, is a device that, with the flick of a switch, will automatically roll up pantlegs.
“Oh, that’s awesome!” Harrison says.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, the eight teams meet at MIT to discuss their projects. Bender speaks about Team Ryan’s progress.
“Ryan, as you can see, is a young and fashionable guy,” Bender begins, smiling at DeRoche, who sits off to the side, wearing black spike earrings, a blue T-shirt, and shorts.
“Rain is one of the things that especially bothers his skin,” she said. “First when we met Ryan, he described the sensation of rain on his skin as needles.”
The team designed a jacket — they call it the Rayn Coat — that is waterproof and zips in the back so it can slip more easily over his arms. They attached a tether with loops to the zipper, long enough to pull to the front so DeRoche can adjust it himself. A pocket in the front protects his cellphone.
One improvement, though, is already clear. Total time to put on DeRoche’s coat: one minute.Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.