Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Megan Amrich headshot

What Is Adaptive Clothing, and Why Are More Retailers Offering It for Children?

By Megan Amrich
adaptive clothing

July is Disability Pride Month. It’s also the start of back-to-school shopping for many families. In other words, it’s the perfect time for JCPenney to introduce Thereabouts, an apparel line featuring adaptive clothing options for disabled and neurodiverse children.

JCPenney is the latest American retailer to offer its own brand of adaptive children’s clothing, joining the likes of Target, Kohl’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos and Lands’ End.

Adaptive Clothing and Fashion 101

So, what exactly is adaptive clothing? As Annie Groer wrote in a 2019 Washington Post article, it is “clothing and shoes re-engineered for children and adults with physical, cognitive or sensory issues, both chronic and short-term.”

Adaptive fashion lines, added Groer, “offer style, dignity, independence, even joy to younger, hipper consumers with disabilities, whether they dress themselves or get help from others.”

Some common features found in adaptive clothing (such as those in JCPenney’s Thereabouts line) include:

Larger openings and simpler fasteners (such as magnets or Velcro) for those with limited dexterity and fine motor skills to dress themselves more easily.

Abdominal access, which allows for feeding tubes (usually in a concealed layer of a top, like a hoodie pocket or a built-in camisole in a shirt).

Wide-leg pants with adjustable sides to allow room for leg braces to be worn.

Extended size ranges are also available on items like bodysuits, onesies or diaper-friendly clothing.

Differently proportioned pants, a design crucial for making sitting in a wheelchair more comfortable.

Flat seams (or no seams) and tag-free labels also limit sensory overload for those with sensitivities.

JCPenney to introduced Thereabouts, an apparel line featuring adaptive clothing options for disabled and neurodiverse children.
JCPenney has introduced Thereabouts, an apparel line featuring adaptive clothing options for disabled and neurodiverse children

Why do these designs matter for adaptive clothing?

As the mother of a disabled child, I greatly appreciate the increased availability of adaptive fashion options.

Previously, adaptive children’s clothing was only available if you could sew or hire a tailor. There were some small vendors available online (like on Etsy), but there was no economy of scale, so prices were extremely high for many families. Major retailers like Target, Kohl’s and now JCPenney, however, are able to bring adaptive clothing prices down to the same price point as their other offerings by using materials already in production. After all, as any parent knows, kids outgrow and wear out clothes very quickly!

In addition, adaptive clothing in earlier years was primarily focused on older wearers, focused almost entirely on function instead of fashion. There were solid colors (usually navy blue or beige), and one-size-fits-all templates, geared toward adults.

Today, my son’s clothes look just like his peers’, with bright colors and patterns and fun characters and all. The only difference is his pant legs have Velcro to accommodate his leg braces, and his shirts have special holes for his feeding tube to thread through.

My family has loved seeing what new adaptive items will be released each season. Last year, for example, ShopDisney sold adaptive Halloween costumes in a variety of characters ranging from princesses to Buzz Lightyear. And just last month, Target released $20 backpacks designed to be strapped onto the back of wheelchairs, with special storage for a feeding pump and a port for a feeding tube. This is huge news, as similar backpacks can cost five times that price on sites like Etsy or through medical supply companies.

Looking ahead at an expanding adaptive clothing market

The U.S. adaptive clothing market is expected to reach nearly $53 billion in 2022. (This projection includes children’s and adults’ clothing.) While the industry has made incredible strides over the past few years, there is still much progress yet to make.

For example, Facebook and Instagram’s algorithm rejects any paid ads that mention disability, or ads that feature medical equipment like wheelchairs. This creates a barrier to entry for small adaptive fashion companies.

In addition, some big companies may enter the adaptive fashion market without adequate input from the disability community itself, especially in the planning stages.

“You can definitely see which companies are really trying to understand their customer, as opposed to who is just trying to check the inclusivity box,” said Helya Mohammadian, founder of adaptive underwear brand Slick Chicks, in a recent interview with Forbes.

JCPenney’s Thereabouts line had a rigorous research and development phase with parents, children, disabled consumers and adaptive fashion consultants.  

“When designing the Thereabouts collection, it was essential to us that we developed the line in partnership with the disabled community,” said Michelle Wlazlo, JCPenney executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, in a recent interview. “Their sensory, dexterity and mobility needs were top of mind during the design process.”

Image credits: JCPenney newsroom

Megan Amrich headshot

Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.

Read more stories by Megan Amrich