Clever winter clothing solves problems for people with mobility issues

Design professor's new system lets wearers be safe, warm and sporty.

Danny Wein is an avid outdoorsman with a witty sense of humour who immerses himself in nature often and enthusiastically. Alberta's winters have never squelched his love of outdoor excursions-what has is the lack of appropriate clothing to keep his extremities warm.

In 1998, after graduating from the University of Alberta, Wein was in a motorcycle accident in South America that injured his lower brain stem and took away his mobility. He still enjoys getting into nature by using a TrailRider (a backwoods-access wheelchair pulled by helpers), but that is only comfortable in warm months or during very short winter outings, because poor circulation in his extremities means he gets cold very quickly.

Now, thanks to an ingenious clothing system created by a design professor and a visiting scholar from China, Wein can be active outdoors for as long as he wants, year-round.

"There are no clothing options for people with mobility challenges when it comes to doing winter outdoor activities, let alone activities that verge on extreme, such as sit-skiing, sit-skating or TrailRiding," said Megan Strickfaden, an associate professor of design studies and material culture in the Department of Human Ecology.

"The most elegant option is a poncho, and even then it has many design flaws."

So when Xioakun Yu, an expert in flat pattern design from Donghua University, China's leading university for textile and apparel studies, asked if she could work with Strickfaden during her sabbatical year, Strickfaden decided they'd develop a prototype for an idea she'd been researching for years.

The two-part clothing system consists of a high-tech poncho with fitted shoulders and hood, plus a leg cover that fits snugly at the chest. The leg cover has additional ease at the back so it doesn't slide down, and darts to create a curved sitting position. An optional third garment (for use on warmer days, for activities such as sit-skiing or for people who have some ability to move their legs), is a bifurcated leg cover that resembles snow pants.

The leg cover attaches and detaches from the poncho, and every zipper has three sliders so users can open it wherever needed for access or venting. The poncho hood is cut far enough back from the face that the wearer has excellent peripheral vision, and has zippered openings for one or two arms to be extended outside when it's warmer.

As constructed by Edmonton manufacturers Apparel Solutions Inc. and Winner Garment Industries Ltd., the system's stylish prototypes are made of waterproof polyester with quilted fill, in solid colours or a jaunty camouflage print.

The system meets all but one of the 60 design criteria collected when Strickfaden observed people from the Canadian Paraplegic Association Alberta (now Spinal Cord Injury Alberta) and Alberta Abilities Lodges Society during trail rides from 2011 to 2015.

These include full body coverage that keeps their extremities warm but fits comfortably over their own indoor or limited outdoor clothing, and a system that's easy for caregivers to fasten on, while also accommodating such needs as breathing or feeding tubes. And with its shaped silhouette, the clothing is fashionable and sporty-looking.

Clever details Strickfaden and Yu added include a one-sized front panel bordered by two zippers, which can be completely removed for washing but fits any size of the leg cover. This extra option means that if a community activity centre purchases several of these systems in different sizes, anyone can reassemble the leg covers easily, to fit anyone.

The innovation and spirit-lifting qualities of this clothing system, coupled with other solutions Strickfaden has designed for people with disabilities, won her recognition from the Premier's Council on the Status of Persons With Disabilities in December, when she received its Award of Excellence in Education.

Without functional and comfortable winter clothing, people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility simply won't go outdoors for extended periods in all temperatures, said Strickfaden.

"That can create isolation and depression," she said.

Danny's parents, Ross and Eleanor Wein, saw this first-hand. Now retired from teaching and research positions at the U of A in the departments of renewable resources and home economics, they and friends helped their son reconnect with the outdoors by founding the Alberta Abilities Lodges Society and opening Coyote Lake Lodge. The woodsy retreat allows people with disabilities expanded access to nature through a range of outdoor adapted equipment and offers them multi-day vacations with their families.

In 2010, the society purchased several TrailRiders, which allowed people such as Danny to move across all kinds of previously out-of-reach terrain in Kananaskis.

"It was like having a new person," said Ross of the confidence and joy it restored to his son.

Now, with purpose-designed clothing to ward off cold weather, Danny and others will be able to participate in many activities year-round. This winter, he and other visitors to Coyote Lake Lodge are testing the prototype clothing systems while sit-skiing, sit-skating and TrailRiding.

The ultimate goal is to refine the design and mass-produce the clothing for the global market, a market that could include seniors who lose mobility through aging, and children with disabilities.