man with cane using indoor explorer app
The American Printing House for the Blind is working with Access Explorer to develop a GPS app to aid users with indoor navigation through audible descriptions and sensors. — Access Explorer

Offering products and services for disabled consumers can be a challenging undertaking, but more and more companies have launched initiatives along those lines.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp., for example, has embraced the opportunity to offer clothing specially designed for children with disabilities. The company has expanded its Cat & Jack line of children’s apparel to include items designed for children with high degrees of sensitivity, such as those with autism, and adaptive clothing for disabled kids.

This year the company has further expanded those offerings with a line of adaptive Halloween costumes designed for children with a range of physical disabilities.

“Every child deserves to bask in the fun of a special moment,” said Julie Guggemos, senior vice president, owned brand management and product design for Target, in a statement.

The Hyde & EEK! Boutique costumes include features such as hidden access panels for catheters, for example, and openings in the back for wheelchair access. Some also include costume elements that incorporate wheelchairs into the costume itself, including a pirate ship and a princess carriage.

Stephanie Alves, founder and chief branding officer, ABL Denim, which makes blue jeans for people with disabilities, applauds Target’s efforts, even though they compete to a degree with her own business.

“I'm very happy that more companies have recognized the need for this,” she said. “It's part of a ‘high tide raises all boats’ attitude that I have.”

ABL Denim had previously offered its adaptive blue jeans through Walmart, but had to stop because the company was unable to turn a profit. In fact, ABL, which now sells through the Zappos Adaptive online store, continues to struggle to reach profitability. It has been difficult to drive the scale needed to place mass orders with overseas factories, Alves explained.

Alves, who had an extensive background in the apparel industry before she launched ABL, said she saw an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities after her stepsister suffered paralysis following back surgery. Her brother also had developmental disabilities, which gave Alves a firsthand view of the challenges these consumers can face attempting everyday tasks such as dressing and undressing.

Data shows that the market for adaptive clothing is growing rapidly. Coresight Research estimated that the U.S. adaptive clothing market would reach $44.5 billion in 2018 and grow to $51.8 billion by 2022. Globally, the market is projected to grow nearly 20% to $325.8 billion in 2022.

That growth reflects a larger trend of businesses waking up to the needs of the disability community. From retail and consumer brands to the media, finance and auto sectors, companies are increasingly making products and services more accessible and functional for the 26% of the adult U.S. population, for one, living with a disability.

Target's Hyde & EEK! Boutique includes costumes for children with special needs, including costumes that incorporate wheelchairs and hidden access panels for catheter placement.

Studying consumers’ needs

As Alves began creating clothing first for her stepsister and then for others with physical disabilities, she began learning about the different limitations and nuances of various diseases, from multiple sclerosis to spina bifida. Eventually she learned that there were enough commonalities among these people’s needs that she could create some items that would suit a cross section of disabled people.

She took a few items to an Abilities Expo, a series of conferences showcasing products geared toward people with disabilities, where she learned that blue jeans were one of the most difficult items for people with disabilities to get on and off. She decided that was an opportunity for her to focus on jeans — a type of clothing worn by nearly everyone but often shunned by people with various physical impairments.

“The way I approach things is to focus on the functionality first, and then the fashion,” said Alves. “It has to really address the needs.”

For example, for people who have lost feeling in certain areas, the clothing must not irritate the skin, or it could cause pressure sores for people in wheelchairs.

The key to developing the ABL Denim line, Alves said, was asking the right questions, such as whether or not the customer can use their fingers, or if they have use on one side of their body or the other, and whether or not they can work a zipper or buttons.

ABL jeans include features such as a high waist in the back, so they don’t ride down on wheelchair users, and an elastic waistband to hold the jeans in place. Some of the designs include fronts can be opened easily for people have catheters, for example, and some have soft-fabric seats so the wearers can be comfortable sitting and free from pressure sores. All zippers have looped strings attached so users can more easily operate them with their fingers if they have the ability to do so.

“Everybody wants to wear clothes that they like,” Alves said. “They want to be able to not worry that they're uncomfortable or that their clothes may be rubbing them.”

The ABL line currently includes five different styles of jeans. Alves said she’s eyeing other opportunities for adaptive apparel, including items incorporating wearable technology, which are currently in development.

I'm very happy that more companies have recognized the need for this. It's part of a ‘high tide raises all boats’ attitude that I have.

Stephanie Alves, founder and chief branding officer, ABL Denim

Be inclusive

Startups and large companies alike have taken leaps to offer products for every consumer. Read on for more ways you, too, can create a more inclusive business.

Guidance for the visually impaired

Serving consumers who are blind or visually impaired presents another opportunity for inclusiveness. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has been helping such people for decades, and the nonprofit organization is now funding a company called Access Explorer that is seeking to leverage this technology for indoor wayfinding.

“When a blind or visually impaired person walks into a building, they generally have no way of navigating — no way of knowing what's around them,” Access Explorer CEO Jose Gaztambide told CO—. “All of the digital signage that we rely on, and all of the scanning that we do with our eyes is obviously not available to the blind and visually impaired. And so, the question became, ‘How do we enable the blind to understand their surroundings?’”

The solution that APH and Access Explorer are pursuing is a mobile app that provides an audible description of the surroundings inside a building, based on digital mapping of the building’s interior and sensors placed throughout the building to determine the user’s position.

While GPS technology works well outdoors, the signal tends to become distorted inside buildings, Gaztambide explained.

“One of the things that we realized when we started the business is that even though we have a good mobile app, and having a good user experience for somebody who's blind is important, the single biggest bottleneck for blind people in this country to be able to navigate indoors is the existence of the digital maps,” he said.

ABL Denim offers five different styles of jeans for customers with special needs — from soft fabric seats to easy-to-open fronts.

Access Explorer has so far mapped several buildings in the Louisville, Ky., area, where it is based, including the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

One of the biggest challenges Access Explorer faces is that many venues have been hesitant to have their interiors mapped for security reasons, Gaztambide said.

“As we build our new mapping platform, we're building it with a high degree of security and making sure that the venue owner controls their data and controls who has access to their data,” he said.

In addition, Access Explorer must also convince venue operators to invest in the installation and maintenance of the mapping technology that the app requires. The initial installation might cost a typical hospital, for example, tens of thousands of dollars, Gaztambide said, with ongoing maintenance of the system costing an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per month.

Access Explorer is seeking to convince building operators of the value of mapping their spaces by demonstrating that the effort not only benefits the blind and visually impaired, but it can also help first responders in the case of emergencies, and can be used to help keep tabs on large pieces of equipment that can sometimes be lost in hospitals, he said.

Gaztambide said he’s also working on solutions for what he calls the “final frustrating 40 feet,” or the ability to pinpoint exact locations within buildings. While the company’s locating technology works well for pointing out where, for example, a specific room is located, it doesn’t necessarily provide the details about the room itself that might be needed, such as where a power outlet is located or where there are vacant chairs.

That will come, he says, in a future phase of development of the offering, so that users will have an even more robust experience using the app.

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