People in wheelchairs express frustration with clothing

3 juin 2015

It’s not always comfortable, stylish or easy to put on

OTTAWA, June 3, 2015 — A study by a Toronto researcher highlights the problems and challenges posed by clothing for people in wheelchairs.

They have issues with comfort, face practical challenges of getting the clothes on and off at home and in places like public washrooms, and find shopping difficult. In addition, they deal with the frustration of not being able to dress the way they would like to.

Emma Thompson undertook the research as part of her work for her Master’s in communication and culture at York University. The study is being presented at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Thompson interviewed adults who used a wheelchair; she did not consider their disability, only their wheelchair use. All of them had frustrations about clothing. Some spoke about how they chose their clothing partly because of the ease with which they were able to get it on or off.

One man, for example, dressed himself lying down on the floor. He said he had learned never to buy pants with buttons on the back pockets because the buttons would inevitably snag in the carpet, making it difficult for him to pull the pants on. Another man indicated that for years he dressed in clothes many sizes too large for him just because it was easier to get the clothing on and off. Another issue was that clothes were often not comfortable to wear for people who remained seated all day.

“The people I interviewed had difficulty in finding clothes that were comfortable,” says Thompson, adding that the one thing every single person mentioned was how nice it would be if they could find clothing with an elasticized waist. Another common frustration was the fact that being in a wheelchair limited choice—and led people to dress differently (and perhaps less stylishly) than they would have liked. “As a society, we value physical appearance,” says Thompson. “You can know what you want to look like, but if those clothes aren’t available to you, you can’t get any of the social value that is associated with wearing them.”

Though some custom clothing options are available, Thompson says most people do not take advantage of them, usually because of cost. And anyone in a wheelchair has to consider whether a tailor or seamstress altering the clothing is wheelchair-accessible, with facilities that allow for clothing to be tried on.

The accessibility issue also carried over into shopping, with many people interviewed expressing frustration with narrow store aisles and tiny or inaccessible change rooms that made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to try things on. As a result, Thompson said many people in wheelchairs simply ‘make do’ with clothing that is in one way or another unsuitable.

Emma Thompson will be presenting this research on June 4 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “Clothing Capital: Interpreting Realities of Disability Through Dress” and will take place at 11:30 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the LMX building, room 217.

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About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress is the largest interdisciplinary conference in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Now in its 84th year, Congress brings together 70+ academic associations that represent a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, history, theatre, film studies, education, music, sociology, geography, social work and many others. Congress 2015 is hosted by the University of Ottawa. For more information, visit


About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research, learning and an understanding of the contributions made by the humanities and the social sciences towards a free and democratic society. Established in 1940, with a membership now comprising 160+ universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 85,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information, visit

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