Friday, March 4, 2011

Fashion students in Texas learn to design for kids with disabilities

From the San Antonio Express-News in Texas:

It's a challenge worthy of “Project Runway”: dressing models of all shapes and sizes, some of whom use crutches or walkers or have spinal curvatures or missing limbs.

That's the idea behind FashionAble, a project for high school fashion design students to create clothes for kids with disabilities. It culminates with a runway show Sunday at Morgan's Wonderland.

“My grandmother alters my clothes,” says 14-year-old Connie Sauceda (pictured), who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. “When my clothes aren't slit on the side, my shirt rolls up. My pants, they always slide down whenever I move in my chair. I also have braces, and with my braces, it's hard to put pants on.”

At the fashion show, Connie will model a glittery purple halter-top dress custom-made for her.

“She likes pretty stuff, she likes girly stuff,” says Patricia Sauceda, Connie's mother. “Just because you're in a wheelchair doesn't mean you don't want to look pretty.”

Nora Oyler, executive director of Spina Bifida Texas, came up with the idea for the project four years ago after her daughter, Cynthia, who also has spina bifida, attended a fashion show and asked her mother if she could ever be in one. Oyler called up Sandy Starr, a fashion design teacher at Jefferson High School, for help.

“It developed into a service project for the students and something empowering for the kids with disabilities,” Oyler says.

Creating what's known as adaptive clothing requires creativity and good communication with the models to judge their needs, Starr says.

Students have widened pant legs to fit over braces, adjusted hem lengths to accommodate spinal curvatures and included hidden openings for catheters. One student sewed a Braille tag inside a garment so a blind child would know its color.

Sometimes the modifications are as simple as using Velcro closures or snaps instead of buttons so kids who lack fine motor skills can dress themselves.

James “Sharkey” Sutherland-Treviño, 19, has designed garments for FashionAble for three years. One year, he put hooks on the hem and waist of a skirt for a girl who used crutches so she could roll it up in the bathroom.

“We're showing that no matter what disability you have, you're still a person who matters to us,” he says.

Thanks to grants from the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation and the San Antonio Junior Forum, FashionAble expanded this year to include students from Business Careers High School and Jay High School. Students can also win scholarship prizes for their designs.

Starr says her students benefit from more than just dreaming up innovative modifications for the clothing.

“The best thing they get out of it that I've noticed is they overcome their fear of people with disabilities,” she says. “They realize they're just kids. It's just really good for them. By the time it's over they're high-fiving and talking with them and playing with them.”

Genevie Elizondo, 17, a senior at Jay High School, created a pink shirt and skirt set for 8-year-old Maci Nicole Gomez, whose disability causes bladder problems, so she could dress like her favorite Chippette from “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

Genevie fashioned a puffy skirt and bloomers to fit over Maci's protective undergarments and created a matching purse to hold catheter supplies.

“That's important to Maci. Dignity all the way,” says Maci's mother, Jo Ann Salas.

Maci also likes being a model, strutting down the runway.

“I get to do poses and all that,” she says.