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How can clothing help people affected by brain injury?

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Inclusive fashion may seem obvious to those with a disability, but the fashion industry has a long way to go, argues Emma McClelland, founder of inclusive womenswear label Kintsugi Clothing.

It seems strange that, while the fashion industry is often experimental and boundary-pushing, designers are reluctant to relinquish conservative practices elsewhere.

Diversity on the runway is infamously poor. As you filter down to the high street, it improves slightly, with fractionally better representation of plus-size and disabled people.

But the looks you see in shop windows aren’t usually designed inclusively, regardless of whether the model wearing them has a difference.

As a matter of semantics, some of the people I’m referring to when I write the world ‘disabled’ don’t identify as disabled. I also use this phrase to mean people who are living with the physical effects of brain injury – effects like muscle weakness, for example – and people whose impairment is temporary, such as people who are recovering from surgery.

Emma McClelland

Clothing can add value for many people when it’s designed inclusively, not just for the size 8-10, white, non-disabled ‘ideal’ woman and tall, toned male ideals we’re used to. Don’t disabled people just wear “normal” clothes like everybody else?

Some can, and do. Likewise, some people need – or simply prefer – clothing that has been adapted specifically to solve challenges presented by certain impairments or health conditions.

This is why adaptive clothing is so important.

Take, for example, a woman whose brain injury has caused ataxia. The tremors in her hands make fastening small buttons a frustrating endeavour.

Adaptive clothing might come into play here with a blouse that appears outwardly to have buttons down the front but actually has concealed magnets that make dressing easier.

Or, say someone is using a wheelchair because their brain injury has caused hemiplegia. Trousers designed to be worn in the seated position – with a specific fit, longer leg length or higher back – are a specific solution.

They’ll probably also have pockets located further down the body (rather than at hip level) to make them more accessible when seated, and belt loops to help with pulling them up.

These are just some examples of the power of adaptive clothing design. ‘Adaptive’ and ‘inclusive’ design are often used interchangeably but there is a difference.

If adaptive design refers to clothing that has been designed specifically to meet certain needs, inclusive design refers to clothing that has been designed with some of those needs in mind.

Sadly, when it comes to fashion, that imagined customer is rarely disabled. Items are made without the company thinking about how their products will be used by people with disabilities.

This is where inclusive design comes into play.

Fashion brands should be creating clothing that anybody can wear, not just a specific person with specific needs. For the designer, it’s about thinking about how certain elements could add value to someone with a difference, whatever that difference may be.

For example, using certain fabric types and not using scratchy internal labels might make the world of difference to someone who experiences sensory irritation as a result of their condition.

For any other person, those features might be nice. They might not care about them at all. But they are still there for those who do. They are ‘inclusive’ features.

Inclusive design matters because we live in a world where 15 per cent of the population experience some form of disability. Any one of us can develop a disability – even if temporarily (after a leg or arm break, for example).

Brain injuries are an example of how someone’s world can change in an instant. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t want to be faced with a world so inaccessible that clothing is a struggle and dressing myself is exhausting.

Nor do I want to feel limited in terms of style. This is why I set up Kintsugi Clothing: to create beautiful, accessible apparel that is inclusive of a range of body types.

Fashion is something we should all be able to enjoy and it’s not as difficult as some brands might think to be inclusive about your design process. Ask disabled people what would make life easier for them and think about how you can work some features into your designs that will add value.

Inclusive design is a developing niche and I, for one, can’t wait to see where it goes in the future.

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QEF’s accessible technology wins international awards

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The new Care and Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey, developed by Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People (QEF), has won 2 international CEDIA awards for its innovative use of accessible technology, which was supplied by technology solutions partner Imperium Building Systems Ltd.

These awards recognise the improvement technology can make to the lives of disabled people, which is reflected at a UN event that forms part of this year’s International Day for People with Disabilities. The global UN awareness day today (December 3) highlights the challenges and discrimination disabled people face around the world, and pushes for positive change towards greater inclusion, accessibility and equality for disabled people.

This year on December 3, the UN is co-hosting an event specifically looking at ‘Reducing Inequalities through Technologies’ noting that: ‘persons with physical, sensory, cognitive/learning or invisible disabilities represent nearly 15 per cent of the world population’ 1 and that ‘for some kinds of disabilities, assistive devices/technologies are key “equalizers” that promote inclusion and full participation in all industries and dimensions of life’. 1

The event also highlights that ‘One billion persons with some form of disability can benefit from assistive technologies that can facilitate their social, economic and political engagement, including their participation in decision-making processes that affect their lives and ambitions’ 1

QEF’s Care and Rehabilitation Centre provides neuro rehabilitation for people after an acquired brain injury, stroke, incomplete spinal injury or other neurological condition and clients are supported by expert staff to relearn core skills, so they can rebuild their lives and be as independent as possible.

QEF’s vision for the new Care and Rehabilitation Centre was to use technology to give each person greater control over their personal space, no matter what a person’s impairment may be. It’s easy to take for granted being able to close the blinds when the sun is in your eyes or turn the lights off when you want to go to sleep – until you can’t do it for yourself. QEF wanted a system that empowered clients to have a greater sense of self-determination and influence over everyday activities during their rehabilitation.

Imperium developed the project with QEF, producing a cost-effective ‘smart home’ solution, using easily available technology that is adaptable to each persons’ specific requirements. Five connected smart devices have been installed in each bedroom which can be controlled in different ways; either with standard voice commands, pre-programmed accessible switches or programmable text to talk commands.

Ann, a client at QEF’s Care and Rehabilitation Centre, says: “I wasn’t sure about it at first – it was odd to sit in my room on my own and talk to something, but now I use it all the time. You can have the blinds down, lights on or off or the TV on or off. It’s another step on the journey of independence, so I don’t have to ask someone to do it for me.”

Chris Thorne, director of Imperium, says: “The technology we have installed for QEF will allow service users to have control over the lights in their room, temperature, day light via shading blinds, and audio-visual equipment. So, someone could stay in one position and manage their entire room, either with switches or voice controls. It also needed to be technology that service users could easily access after they left the service; creating independence that could continue beyond QEF’s walls.”

The international CEDIA awards recognise technical excellence and product innovation in the home technology industry. Imperium’s project with QEF was announced in November 2021 as winners in the ‘Multi Dwelling Unit Design’ category and also went on to win the overall award for ‘Life Lived Best at Home’ which reflects the project that gives the best experience for a client.

Judges for the Life Lived Better at Home award said: “This entry is outstanding for its sensitive and pragmatic response to the brief and for the way the technology meets the changing needs of the users. And all this achieved on an extraordinarily tight budget. I hope there will be many more projects like this in the future!”

Karen Deacon, QEF’s chief executive, says: “Our new Care and Rehabilitation Centre gave us an opportunity to use technology in an innovative way that would directly benefit clients as they relearn core skills. Adapting to life after an acquired brain injury is challenging for anyone and if technology can help give someone back their sense of control over everyday activities then we wanted to be able to offer that as part of our neuro rehabilitation programme.”

  1. Reducing Inequalities Through Technologies: A Perspective on Disability Inclusive Development https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2021/11/IDPD2021ConceptNote.pdf

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Webinar to explore the future of brain injury rehab

Join our panel of expert guests as we discuss the challenges and opportunities in improving patients’ lives

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The future of brain injury rehabilitation and how patients can be supported in new ways is to be examined by leading experts from across the sector at an event held next week. 

Brain injury rehab has made huge strides over the years, innovating and developing to better meet the needs of people living with life-changing injuries. 

Through changes in technology, developments in medicine and the advances in neurorehabilitation, brain injury patients should face an outlook which is better than ever before. 

However, the lack of resource within health services, exacerbated by the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and mounting pressures on the NHS, mean that progress and change is not being seen at the rate many would hope for.  

In 2020, the British Society of Rehabilitation Medicine (BSRM) identified the increased pressure on neurorehabilitation, highlighting the “unquantifiable additional case-load of patients with post-Covid disability presenting with a wide range of problems due to cardio-pulmonary, musculoskeletal, neurological and psychological/ psychiatric complications of the disease.”

In an upcoming webinar – What does the future of brain injury rehabilitation look like? – to be held on Wednesday next week (December 8th) and organised by NRC Medical Experts in association with NR Times, this matter will be examined to assess the scale of the challenge, the opportunities that exist, and what more can be done to better support patients. 

The panel will comprise:

The live hour-long event, from 4.30pm to 5.30pm, will include a panel debate, with questions welcomed from the audience. 

“Health and social care services have been under increasing pressure from an ageing population for decades and this has now been exacerbated by the disruption created by COVID-19,” says Edmund. 

“Brain injury rehabilitation services have always been poorly resourced in the UK, and are now under increased strain while professionals are diverted into the acute management and rehabilitation of COVID-19 patients. 

“It is essential therefore that we consider how to improve service delivery models so that people with brain injury do not fall further behind in the queue. 

“Technological innovation in its many forms offers much potential here, but realising this will be a substantial undertaking for which we are as yet ill-prepared. 

“During this webinar we will explore some of the major opportunities and problems.”

To attend the webinar, registration is required in advance. To sign up, visit here 

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Thousands supported by communication training

In its first year, the Communication Access project has engaged over 4,500 organisations and individuals

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Thousands of organisations and individuals across the UK have benefitted from an initiative to support people with communication difficulties since its launch a year ago. 

The Communication Access UK scheme, a free e-learning tool, delivers training on accessible face-to-face, telephone and online conversation and customer service, in support of the millions of people in the UK who live with some form of speech, language or communication disability. 

Organisations that complete the training will be able to display the Communication Access Symbol in their workplace, demonstrating their commitment to supporting customers and staff who experience difficulties in communication. 

More than 4,500 businesses, organisations and individuals have already taken part in the initiative, which launched last November and was developed by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), in partnership with the Stroke Association, Headway, MND Association, Business Disability Forum, Communication Matters, The Makaton Charity, and the National Network of Parent Carer Forums.

And on the first anniversary of its launch, two organisations have achieved landmark ‘firsts’ in support of Communication Access. 

Barnsley FC has become the first football club in the UK to undertake Communication Access training and commit to supporting people with speech, language and communication barrier. Its charity arm, Reds in the Community, has also signed up to the initiative.

Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust (NDHT) has also become the first NHS Trust in England to gain accreditation to the standard, offering the package to its entire workforce. 

The success of the scheme to date comes as the campaign to secure better access to speech and language therapy continues, with thousands supporting a petition to the Government and 20 APPGs calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson for action.

“Communication disability in the UK affects millions of people, so I’ve been thrilled to see so many organisations and individuals register for the free multi-award winning Communication Access training in the last year,” says Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ chief executive, Kamini Gadhok.

“Barnsley Football Club has just become the first football club to be CAUK accredited, while North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust is the first NHS Trust to commit to training its entire workforce to enable them to provide communication accessible services and it’s been fabulous to see organisations setting the bar for others in this way.

“Of course, we’d like to see many more businesses and people register for the training, so please visit the website and register for the training today.”

Barnsley FC’s CEO, Khaled El-Ahmad, said: “Our club has a number of touchpoints, both of digital and physical nature, and it is integral that we provide the best service possible to supporters. 

“Knowing that we are making strides to communicate in an inclusive manner is positive, as we look to improve our offering and overall experience for individuals living with disabilities at Oakwell.”

Andrea Bell, deputy chief nurse at NDHT, added: “At NDHT, we encounter a huge variety of patients with extra communication needs, from those who may have had a stroke to people with visual or hearing impairments. It’s vital that we are able to communicate with them to give them the best possible care.

“We’re extremely proud to be the first Trust in England to become part of Communication Access, and we hope other Trusts will follow our lead in facilitating the best possible communication with patients.”

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