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Mindy Scheier: How adaptive clothing empowers people with disabilities

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Do you have a favorite T-shirt or pair of jeans that transforms you and makes you feel confident -- makes you feel like you? That's because what you wear can affect your mood, your health and your self-esteem, says fashion designer Mindy Scheier. Inspired by her son, who was born with a degenerative disorder that makes it hard for him to dress himself or wear clothing with buttons or zippers, Scheier set out to make clothing that works for everyone, including the differently abled. Learn more about how she's made fashion history by producing the world's first mainstream adaptive clothing line.

- Fashion designer
Mindy Scheier is the founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation. Prior to launching the nonprofit, Mindy spent over 20 years working in fashion as a key member of the design team for the INC collection and stylist for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Full bio

I love fashion.
00:12
I actually go to bed every night
thinking about what I'm going to wear
00:14
the next day.
00:18
Clothing transforms me,
00:20
defines me,
00:23
gives me confidence.
00:24
You may not feel
the same way about fashion,
00:26
but I bet you have a favorite T-shirt
or a pair of jeans that transforms you --
00:29
makes you feel good,
00:35
makes you feel confident,
00:37
makes you feel like you.
00:39
When I was younger,
00:41
I wanted to be Betsey Johnson.
00:43
I thought we were kindred,
crazy-hair spirits together.
00:45
I did go to fashion design,
00:49
I worked in the industry for years
00:51
and loved it.
00:53
I married,
00:55
I had three kids.
00:57
But life can be heartbreakingly ironic.
00:59
My middle child, Oliver, was born
with a rare form of muscular dystrophy,
01:05
or MD.
01:10
MD affects his muscle strength,
01:12
his pulmonary system,
01:15
distorts his body
01:17
and makes everyday life
more challenging than most.
01:18
From the time he could walk,
01:22
which wasn't until about two and a half,
01:23
he had to wear leg braces for stability.
01:25
Because he wasn't growing appropriately,
01:28
he had to wear a feeding tube
that was placed on his face.
01:30
He endured stares, and so did I.
01:34
But my husband Greg and I told him
01:38
that no matter what,
01:41
he was just like everybody else.
01:43
But everyday tasks for Oliver
01:46
that we all take for granted
01:49
were incredibly challenging.
01:51
That simple act of dressing yourself --
the very thing that I adore --
01:54
was a nightmare for him.
02:00
His form of MD does not affect his mind.
02:03
His brain is an A-plus,
02:07
which means he's acutely aware
of his shortcomings.
02:09
This became very evident
when he started school,
02:12
and that daily act of dressing yourself
was a constant reminder
02:16
of what he could and could not do.
02:21
So our solution was for Oliver
to wear sweatpants every day:
02:26
to school,
02:30
to parties,
02:31
on vacations --
02:32
his uniform.
02:34
For special occasions,
he would wear proper pants.
02:36
But many times, because he couldn't manage
the button and zipper,
02:39
I would have to take him
to the men's room,
02:43
which was incredibly embarrassing for him
02:46
and the other men that were in there.
02:49
But them -- I said, "Oh, please.
There's nothing I haven't seen before."
02:51
(Laughter)
02:54
For years we muddled through.
02:56
But when Oliver was in third grade,
02:58
I found out he was more like me
than I ever imagined.
03:01
Oliver, too, cared about fashion.
03:06
He came home from school one day
and said very definitively
03:09
that he was going to wear jeans to school
like everybody else gets to wear.
03:13
Well, I certainly couldn't go
to class with him
03:17
and take him to the boys' room,
03:20
but there was no way
I was telling my eight-year-old
03:21
that he couldn't wear
what he wanted to wear.
03:25
So that night,
03:28
I MacGyvered the hell out of his jeans.
03:30
I remembered when I was pregnant
03:33
and unwilling to stop wearing
my own favorite pants,
03:36
even though I was busting out of them,
03:39
that rubber-band trick.
03:41
You moms remember what I'm talking about?
03:43
The rubber band through the buttonhole,
03:45
around the button and back?
03:47
Instant stretch.
03:49
So I removed the zipper
03:51
so he could pull it
up and down on his own.
03:53
I cut up the side seam
of the bottom of his pants
03:56
to accommodate for his leg braces,
04:00
applied Velcro --
04:02
hold your ears, everybody:
peel and stick, mind you --
04:03
so that it would close around it.
04:07
When I showed Oliver
my arts and crafts project,
04:10
he absolutely beamed.
04:14
He went into school
with his head held so high.
04:16
Those jeans transformed him.
04:20
He was able to get dressed on his own,
04:23
he was able to go
to the bathroom on his own;
04:26
those jeans gave him confidence.
04:28
I didn't realize it at the time,
04:31
but this was my first foray
into the world of adaptive clothing.
04:33
Adaptive clothing is defined as clothing
designed for people with disabilities,
04:38
the elderly
04:43
and anyone who struggles
with dressing themselves.
04:45
Adaptive clothing did exist,
04:49
but it was missing that mainstream
fashion component.
04:52
It was very medicinal and very functional
04:56
but not stylish.
04:59
And that's a huge problem,
05:01
because what you wear matters.
05:03
Clothing can affect your mood,
05:06
your health
05:09
and your self-esteem.
05:10
Now, being a fashion lover,
I've known this forever,
05:12
but scientists actually
have a name for it.
05:15
It's called "Enclothed Cognition,"
05:18
the co-occurrence of two factors:
05:21
the symbolic meaning of clothing
05:23
and the physical experience
of wearing the clothing,
05:26
both of which have a direct correlation
to how you feel about yourself.
05:30
There's actually a professor in the UK
by the name of Karen J. Pine.
05:35
She wrote a book called
"Mind What You Wear:
05:40
The Psychology of Fashion."
05:43
She states in her book
05:45
that when you put clothes on,
05:47
you adapt the characteristics
of what you're wearing,
05:50
whether you realize it or not.
05:53
That's why you feel like a rock star
05:56
when you put on
those perfect-fitting jeans.
06:00
That's why you feel invincible
when you put on that power suit,
06:03
and that's why you feel beautiful
06:07
in that little black dress.
06:10
But that's exactly why
Oliver felt so isolated
06:12
when he couldn't wear
what he wanted to wear.
06:16
He even said to me one time,
06:18
"Mom, wearing sweatpants every day
06:19
makes me feel like I'm dressing disabled."
06:22
There are one billion people on our planet
06:28
that experience some type of disability.
06:32
One billion.
06:34
If 10 percent of that billion
experience clothing challenges,
06:37
that's an enormous amount of people
that may not be as confident,
06:42
as successful
06:46
or even as happy as they could be.
06:48
The morning after Oliver left for school
wearing those jeans,
06:52
I realized that I could
do something about that.
06:56
And so I did.
07:00
In 2013, I founded an organization
called Runway of Dreams.
07:02
The mission was to educate
the fashion industry
07:08
that modifications could be made
to mainstream clothing
07:12
for this community
that has never been served.
07:16
And it began with an entire
year of research.
07:20
I went to schools, I went to facilities,
I went to hospitals.
07:24
I literally chased down people
on the street who were in wheelchairs
07:28
or if they had walkers
07:32
or even if they had a slight limp.
07:33
(Laughter)
07:35
I know I must have looked insane,
07:36
but I knew that if I was really
going to make a difference,
07:38
I had to truly understand
the clothing challenges
07:41
of as many different people
as I possibly could.
07:45
I met a young man who was 18
who has cerebral palsy.
07:48
He was going to Harvard University.
07:53
He said to me, "Can you imagine?
07:56
I got myself into Harvard,
07:58
but my dream is to be able
to wear jeans on campus,
08:01
like the other freshmen will wear."
08:05
I met a little girl named Gianna,
08:07
who was missing
her left forearm and her hand.
08:10
Her mother told me
08:14
she could not bear to see
her daughter's difference magnified
08:16
by a dangling sleeve,
08:19
so she had every single long-sleeve shirt
professionally tailored.
08:21
Can you imagine the time
and money she spent?
08:25
I also had the great privilege
of spending time with Eric LeGrand,
08:29
former Rutgers football player
who was paralyzed during a tackle in 2010.
08:33
I had, at this point,
seen some unfathomable things,
08:39
but this, by far,
was the most heart-stopping.
08:43
You see, Eric is a really big guy,
08:47
and it took two aides
and a lifting machine
08:49
to get him dressed.
08:53
I sat and watched this process
for over two hours.
08:55
When I expressed my shock to Eric,
08:59
he looked at me and said,
09:02
"Mindy, this is every single day.
09:03
What can I say?
09:06
I like to look sharp."
09:07
Research done.
09:10
I knew that if I was going to make
a change in the industry,
09:12
I had to use my background
09:15
and really figure out
how to make these clothes modified.
09:18
So I took the information
I gathered over that past year,
09:23
and I figured out that there were
actually three categories
09:27
that were affected across the board.
09:30
The first were closures.
09:32
Buttons, snaps, zippers, hook-and-eyes
were a challenge for almost everybody.
09:35
So I replaced them
with a more manageable technology:
09:40
magnets.
09:44
Magnets made our Harvard freshman
able to wear jeans on campus,
09:45
because he could dress himself.
09:50
Second: adjustability.
09:52
Pant lengths, sleeve lengths, waistbands
09:55
were a challenge for so many
different-shaped bodies.
09:57
So I added elastic,
10:00
an internal hemming system.
10:02
This way, Gianna could wear
a shirt right off the rack
10:05
and just adjust the one sleeve.
10:08
Last: alternate ways to get
the clothing on and off the body,
10:11
outside the traditional way
of over your head.
10:14
So I designed a way to go in arms first.
10:17
This, for somebody like Eric,
10:20
could actually take five steps
off his dressing process
10:22
and give him back the gift of time.
10:27
So I went out,
10:31
I bought clothing right off the rack,
10:33
I sat at my kitchen table,
ripped them apart,
10:35
did prototype after prototype,
until I felt I had great modifications.
10:39
And then I was ready for the big leagues:
10:45
the fashion industry.
10:48
Rather than designing my own collection,
10:51
I knew if I was really
going to make a difference,
10:53
I had to go mainstream.
10:56
I believed that I just needed
to educate the industry
10:59
of the enormity of this population
11:04
and the fact that these were consumers
11:06
that simply weren't being considered.
11:10
And I am thrilled to say
that the industry heard me.
11:13
Runway of Dreams collaborated
with the most amazing,
11:18
forward-thinking brand on our planet --
11:23
(Applause)
11:27
who took my vision to market
11:36
and made fashion history
11:38
by launching the first mainstream
adaptive collection.
11:41
And the rest is yet to come.
11:45
(Applause)
11:49
So --
11:51
(Applause)
11:52
Fashion holds the key to a vital lifeline.
11:55
Clothing can be transformative.
11:59
Clothing equals confidence.
12:01
So tomorrow,
12:06
when you are starting your day
12:07
and you're thinking about
what you're going to wear,
12:09
I hope you appreciate the process
12:12
and think about how what you chose
12:15
makes you feel.
12:18
Today, Oliver is 13.
12:19
He wears his adaptive khakis,
12:22
his magnetic button-front shirt --
12:24
feels like the coolest kid around.
12:27
My boy has total swagger.
12:29
(Laughter)
12:32
As I mentioned,
12:35
Oliver's disease is degenerative,
12:39
which means his muscles
are going to break down over time.
12:42
This, by far, is the most
devastating part for me.
12:47
I have to sit on the sidelines
12:52
and watch my boy deteriorate.
12:56
And there's nothing I can do about it.
12:59
So I am looking up from the things
that I cannot control
13:03
to the things that I can,
13:09
because I have no option.
13:11
And so, I am looking up.
13:14
And I'm asking the fashion
industry to look up.
13:17
And now, I'm asking all of you
13:21
to look up, too.
13:24
Thank you.
13:27
(Applause)
13:28

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About the speaker:

Mindy Scheier - Fashion designer
Mindy Scheier is the founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation. Prior to launching the nonprofit, Mindy spent over 20 years working in fashion as a key member of the design team for the INC collection and stylist for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Why you should listen

Mindy Scheier's career path took a new direction when her son Oliver, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that causes physical disabilities, wanted to wear jeans to school like his friends. She used her background in design to adapt a pair that not only met his needs but increased his confidence. She soon realized that millions of people around the globe were also struggling to access fashionable clothing and went on to conduct extensive research and focus groups with people of all abilities to better understand the challenges faced by the community. She used her experience in fashion to develop modifications -- including magnetic closures, adjustability of waistbands, pant and sleeve lengths and alternative ways to get in and out of the clothing -- to meet a wide variety of needs within the differently-abled community. After pounding the fashion pavement, Runway of Dreams collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger on the first ever-mainstream adaptive clothing line for kids in Spring 2016.

Scheier's work with Runway of Dreams Foundation expands beyond adaptive clothing. Founded on the basis that clothing is a basic human need, the Runway of Dreams Foundation develops, delivers and supports initiatives to broaden the reach of mainstream adaptive clothing and promote the differently-abled community in the fashion industry. Through adaptive clothing donations, employment opportunity initiatives, adaptive design workshops, awareness building campaigns and scholarships programs, the Runway of Dreams Foundation is empowering people with disabilities with opportunity, confidence, independence and style. Envisioning a world where fashion is mainstream and accessible for all, Scheier continues to break down barriers and challenge industry norms.

More profile about the speaker
Mindy Scheier | Speaker | TED.com