For years, biking was Ryan Deroche’s life. He was a competitive biker and worked as a logistics manager for a bicycle tour company in Europe. But a spinal injury from a bike accident in Spain three years ago left him paralyzed from the neck down, and now he sits in a wheelchair instead of a bike seat.
Aside from riding, it’s the small things Ryan misses most about his pre-injury independence, like getting dressed in the morning. Even with the help of his full-time caretaker, it takes him more than five minutes to put a jacket on.
This dress time isn’t just inconvenient, it poses serious medical concerns for him as well. Ryan’s injury was incomplete and his body’s nerves are just starting to regenerate, creating a host of sensory issues. When rain falls on his skin it feels like needles, he says, like he’s getting a tattoo every time it rains.
It’s people like Ryan that inspired Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Style Lab (OSL), a 10-week adaptive clothing design program. Funded by MIT grants and corporate sponsorships, the program brings together engineering, design, and occupational therapy students to create fashionable yet functional clothing for people with disabilities.
Twenty-four students are participating in the inaugural program this summer, designing personalized apparel for eight clients with challenges ranging from paralysis, amputations, sensory problems, and severe arthritis. The students were divided into eight teams and worked closely with a client to develop a fashionable solution to their greatest challenges.
For example, since Ryan describes himself as “a hoodie kind of guy,’’ Team Ryan developed a waterproof hoodie that protects his skin from the rain while allowing him to maintain his hoodie persona. Coined the RAYN jacket, it has an opening in the back so Ryan can put it on in less than a minute. The front pocket also unfolds into a nifty “lap flap’’ that protects his lap from collecting rain, another challenge Ryan identified to his team.
Preserving fashion as a channel of self-expression for disabled persons is hugely important to program co-founders Grace Teo and Alice Tin. Growing up with a sister with a cleft palate, Teo realized early on the unfortunate reality that a person’s appearance influences their social and professional success.
“A woman at a hospital once told [my sister], ‘people who look like you, they have to work hard,’ meaning she had to compensate for her looks,’’ Teo said. “The way you look really determines your social capital and what people think of you.’’
But dressing fashionably is hardly an option for people with disabilites, Teo explained. Most clothes have zippers and buttons that require fine motors skills so disabled persons resort to wearing plain, loose clothing like sweatpants and t-shirts that are easier to put on.
But it’s not all about aesthetic appeal. All OSL clothes serve a medical purpose, too.
For example, one team worked to develop a dress shirt for Dennis, a paraplegic public health servant that struggles with temperature self-regulation.
“Dennis used to wear an electrically heated jacket that motorcyclists use on the highway,’’ Tin explained. “But because he physically can’t take off the jacket when he’s too hot, and also because his nerves don’t always realize how hot he is, he’s actually been seriously burned from this jacket.’’
The OSL dress shirt uses temperature regulating technology and magnetic buttons so Dennis can control his temperature and dress himself more easily. The shirt looks like a normal dress shirt, too, so Dennis can dress professionally for work.
Open Style Lab invites the public to come see the dress shirt, RAYN jacket, and other final clothing prototypes designed this summer at a public design exhibit at MIT August 16 from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Coinciding with Boston’s Fashion Week, student teams will also present their prototypes at Boston’s Museum of Sceince each weekend in October.
Open Style Lab clothes aren’t on the market yet, but Teo and Tin envision OSL becoming an official company in the future either as a brand or as an alterations service.