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Spicing up a wardrobe with modified jeans to simplify life

Jeans have been a fashion staple since the late 1800s.

But for people with cognitive impairments or fine motor challenges, everything from the sturdy material to the zippers and buttons can be hard to navigate.  


It’s tough for six-year-old Natalie Rohe to find a pair of jeans or khakis she feels comfortable in.  


The Bear resident was born with Down syndrome. Her mother, Shawn Rohe, says with fine motor and developmental delays, Natalie has trouble maneuvering a zipper and then buttoning a pair of pants together.


“She can wear them, but she loses her independence in her daily life skills,” Shawn said. “That's huge to us. We really want her to have independence and feel successful. We tend to steer away from those clothes. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want them in her closet.”


Natalie wears a lot of colorful leggings. On a Wednesday in mid-October, she showed off a pair of navy blue leggings adorned with bright colored flowers.


“I like these pants!” Natalie said.


Shawn said those pants work well for Natalie because they’re soft and comfortable. 


“And the elastic waistband makes a big difference for her because it affords her that opportunity to be independent,” she said. 


But as Natalie gets older, Shawn wants her to feel like she fits in with her friends and peers. For her, that means finding comfortable clothing that also looks cool.


The Rohe family has been working with University of Delaware PhD student Martha Hall, who is making adaptive jeans for children with disabilities. This type of clothing is designed and tailored to the needs of people with disabilities who can’t work buttons or zippers, for example. 

Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
UD PhD student Martha Hall is just starting to sew jeans that will be custom-made for children with disabilities.


Hall has a background in fashion design and has been studying clothing and mobility impairments. She surveyed 10 families on the challenges their children face and found out most of them want jeans, but have trouble dressing themselves.


“If you have a cognitive impairment, you may not know the steps that you need to do to get from A to Z: How do you take a pair of pants, put them on appropriately and then be dressed at the end of the day?” Hall said.


She’s sewing jeans out a softer, stretchier denim material and using magnets for the closures instead of zippers and buttons. 


There’s already a market for adaptive jeans out there, but Hall says she thinks her research takes things to the next level.


“The options that are out there focus on function alone for the most part,” Hall said. “They do not focus on aesthetics. People with disabilities are like everybody else in the population. They want to look cute, they want to look cool. They want to have something that functions a certain way that is suited to their ability and their skill-set, but at the end of the day they want to fit in just like everybody else.” 


Part of fitting in is having a sense of independence dressing and undressing, she said.


Maureen Foss, a board certified behavioral analyst with Innovation Behavior Services in Dover, agrees. She works with children who have autism and says some of her clients have difficulty with dressing. 


That’s an issue she says she’d like to see tackled in the future.


“We’re always looking for the highest level of independence a person can achieve,” Foss said. “How much independence can you actually achieve if you always need someone to help you get dressed every day?”


Hall is just now starting to make the jeans under the direction of UD physical therapy professor Michele Lobo and the Move to Learn Innovation Lab. By the end of the year, she’ll outfit 10 children with two pairs of jeans each. 


One pair will be custom-made for the individual child and the other will be what Hall hopes is a solution for all. That solution has magnets on both sides, so a child can open up the jeans and close them around their legs. 


Hall says if the jeans work out, she’ll try to license them to a company or start her own clothing line.


“I always joke that I want to change the world with these kinds of things but I really do,” Hall said. “I think our big goal is to try to create clothing that helps kids be independent. If we can do that, we can change their quality of life.”


As for Natalie Rohe, her mother, Shawn, says she’s already shown her some sketches of the jeans that Martha has made, and Natalie seems excited.


“I’m just very curious to see her reaction once they’re finally here and in-person and she can try them on,” Shawn said.


And maybe expand her wardrobe in the future.

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