“Every time I have to shop for my kids, it’s a struggle,” said the 44-year-old from San Diego. She recently spent the $1,500 from her first child tax credit on school clothes to prepare for the return of in-person classes this fall after a year of remote learning. “I’ve really tried to instill in them a love for themselves and embracing who they are as disabled people, but it becomes very difficult when we have to buy clothes.”
A number of major retailers — Target, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and Zappos, among them — are vying to simplify back-to-school shopping for those with disabilities and special medical needs. They are debuting and expanding “adaptive” clothing lines that include shirts with hidden access to medical ports, and pants that can be easily pulled on with one hand. There are magnetic closures instead of buttons, and thumbhole cuffs to keep jacket sleeves in place.
While clothing brands tout these efforts as an important step toward inclusivity, analysts say it also makes business sense. In the United States alone, 61 million — or 1 in 4 — adults live with a disability, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sales of adaptive clothing and shoes are expected to top $1 billion this year, according to retail data firm Coresight Research. But demand outpaces supply, according to the firm, which estimates that the category could become a $64.3 billion a year business for U.S. retailers.
“We’re starting to see the adaptive market catch on, with more retailers and brands paying attention,” said Erin Schmidt, an analyst at Coresight. “But there is still a lot of room to grow. Many brands are just getting started, trying to figure out where to begin.”
Tommy Hilfiger in 2017 became the first mainstream brand to introduce such a line. Since then, a number of mass retailers have added more accessible and inclusive clothing. But parents say challenges remain. Many adaptive items are sold only online, and in limited sizing, making it difficult to outfit infants and teenagers. And while the clothing may address one issue — eliminating scratchy seams, for instance — they often don’t account for others, such as leaving enough room for diapers or positioning medical devices away from a toddler’s reach.
“The market has really expanded — with many brands at many price points finally realizing that being inclusive also means serving people with disabilities — but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Kerri McBee-Black, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri, where she studies how adaptive clothing is produced and marketed to people with disabilities. “Since this consumer was ignored for so long, retailers still don’t fully understand their needs, to be quite honest.”
When Lucy Potter was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as a toddler, her mother, Moriah, poured all of her energy into getting the 1-year-old a wheelchair and signing her up for a promising drug trial. Finding the right clothes was mostly an afterthought.
“I didn’t even think about there being easier options for us until I saw adaptive clothes at Target a few years ago,” said Moriah Potter, 35, of Spearman, Tex. “We live in the middle of nowhere — the closest Target is 90 minutes away — but we can order everything we need online.”
The big-box chain, which began selling adaptive children’s clothing in 2017, now offers more than 100 styles, including zippered sneakers, chambray jumpsuits with abdominal openings, and backpacks with easy-grab zippers and straps that hook onto wheelchair handles.
Lucy, who’s preparing to start second grade, has a rotation of favorite outfits — many of them in bright pink — from Target’s adaptive line. She likes tulle dresses that her mother tucks underneath her so they don’t get caught in her wheelchair, and shoes with wide openings to accommodate her ankle brace. In the winter, she wears a back-closing adaptive jacket that doesn’t require her to lean forward to pull it on. Soon, her mother says, she’ll be buying new adaptive tops to accommodate the gastrostomy tube that is being placed in her stomach for supplemental feeding.
“She’s like any 8-year-old: She loves rainbows and unicorns and poofy dresses,” Moriah Potter said. “I love that she can wear cute stuff, just like everybody else.”
Lands’ End’s collection of adaptive school uniforms comes with satin tags and elastic waistbands. American Eagle Outfitters' Aerie brand is selling camouflage-print ostomy covers and hot pink insulin pump belts.
And at J.C. Penney, the adaptive options in its new back-to-school lineup include jeans with Velcro-like closures, wide-neck T-shirts and hoodies with magnetic zippers and hidden abdominal openings.
Development and design teams began talking with parents and children last year about what they’d like to see in an inclusive collection. The resulting line, Thereabouts, was introduced last month in sizes 2T to 22, and is a precursor to adults’ options launching this fall.
“What we heard over and over was that they want clothing that functions well — that considers sensory issues and dexterity and mobility — but is also fun and fashionable,” chief merchandising officer Michelle Wlazlo said. “That was a very important part of this.”
Online shoe seller Zappos added adaptive wear in 2017, after hearing from a customer who couldn’t find sneakers that her 11-year-old grandson with autism could put on by himself. Today, it sells thousands of easy-on items, and has begun allowing shoppers to buy just a single shoe, or a pair in different sizes, based on their needs.
“People talk about this being a niche market, but when you look at the number of people with a disability — 61 million in the United States alone — there definitely is a huge opportunity for adaptive wear,” said Dana Zumbo, business development manager for Zappos Adaptive. “We’re having conversations with brands, helping them understand that small modifications can open up the market for so many more people.” (Zappos is owned by Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Tommy Hilfiger now sells its adaptive products globally, in Europe, Japan and Australia. The line, priced from $20 to $200, includes bathing suits with side closures and sports bras with magnetic fasteners. Executives modified pieces from the brand’s mainstream collection to make them easier to pull on and more comfortable. Buttons and zippers get swapped out for magnets and Velcro. Pants legs are widened, to make room for braces and prosthetics. And watches are fitted with magnetic mesh straps.
“There was a huge gap to fill,” said Sarah Horton, senior director of innovation for Tommy Hilfiger. “People with disabilities have been largely overlooked and excluded by the fashion industry.”
Kohl’s foray into sensory-friendly clothing began as a project by summer interns in 2018. Less than a year later, with the help of technical designers, the department store chain launched a collection of adaptive wear, including pants with reinforced belt loops, to make it easier for children to pull them up by themselves, and infants bodysuits with hidden slots for abdominal port access.
“We see this shopper as just one of our customers,” said Katherine Finder, senior vice president of design and brand management at Kohl’s. “These clothes really look no different from clothes in our main line. There’s an element of creating more freedom and independence when kids are able to select and put on the clothing they wear.”
Lisa Burk, 53, of Baton Rouge, says her biggest challenge is finding comfortable pants for her teenage son, who is in a wheelchair. Pockets in jeans and pajama pants often result in painful sores on his legs.
When he was younger, she’d scour popular retailers like the Children’s Place or Gap looking for items without pockets or tags. And while there are more options now, she says it is often difficult and pricey to find what she needs. She pays nearly $50 per pair of Hanna Andersson men’s pajamas, which come without pockets or scratchy seams.
“There’s no running to the store to get affordable pants,” she said. “We have a couple of things we like from Target but he’s about to grow out of them. We’re stuffing him into the XL, wondering what we’re going to do when he needs something bigger.”
Many adaptive lines for children tend to focus on school-age kids, who tend to be a more lucrative market than infants or teenagers, according to McBee-Black of the University of Missouri. As a result, parents say it’s often difficult to find stylish and comfortable options for young children and high-schoolers.
“Quite honestly, it comes down to volume: There’s more money in school-aged children, 5 years old to preteen,” McBee-Black said. “It’s a well-known market that’s easy to advertise to. And there’s also the feel-good factor: You can show cute kids in the ads, which tugs on people’s heartstrings.”
Assembling a practical wardrobe for Myah Genung’s infant son, who has a feeding tube and tracheostomy to help him breathe, has become a growing challenge. Adaptive bodysuits, she says, are either prohibitively expensive or impractical — many have openings in the front, making it too easy for the 14-month-old to grab and play with his medical tubes.
“Honestly we have not found adaptive clothing that we like,” said Genung, 32, who lives in Los Angeles and works for the University of Southern California. “The medical special needs community may not be a mass market, but there are so many things we have to focus on during any given day — medications, surgeries, doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations — that it would be nice if there were more clothing options.”
In Annapolis, Eric Davis says he’s finally able to find stylish clothing for his 14-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum. He buys elastic-waistband jeans from Target and J.C. Penney, as well as trendy T-shirts from Zara and Birkenstock sandals from Nordstrom.
“We focus on things that are easy to pull on and take off,” the 33-year-old said. “I love to look good and I like my son to look good, too.