CHICAGO — You may think nothing about putting on a hoodie when you need or want to, but for some people its design may still prove difficult to manage.
Zippers that are hard to grab, pockets that don’t sit in the right spot, pieces of clothing that, if you’re blind, you can’t tell what color they are.
Meredith Wells, a singer/dancer/writer and Lincoln Park resident is one of four co-founders of Social Surge, a new clothing brand centered on accessibility for everybody — specifically people with disabilities and the gender nonconforming community.
The Social Surge team of people with disabilities consults on clothing designs after sharing their struggles when it comes to getting dressed. Wells said that kangaroo pockets on hoodies were problematic for people using wheelchairs, because their cellphones often fell to the ground when they had to transfer out of the chair. With that knowledge, Social Surge created the Utility and Heroic hoodies with vertical pockets to keep phones secure. The Elevate Zip Hoodie was designed with a full-length magnetic zipper so those with limited hand dexterity don’t have to endure the difficulty of aligning the teeth of a traditional zipper to get it started, Wells said.
“We build fashionable, functional garments around those needs, but even if you’re not in a wheelchair you put your phone in that pocket and it’s just secure,” Wells said. “It’s great for everyone, and that’s what we really want to bring to the table — making a garment accessible is good for everyone. It doesn’t make it impossible for someone who is not visually impaired or is not in a wheelchair unable to use that garment.”
Wells calls it “flipping the script” when it comes to the design process in fashion. Instead of building a T-shirt, and then trying to find a consumer, Social Surge knows the consumer and asks them: What are your struggles when it comes to getting dressed? What could you really use in a garment?
They said visually-impaired consultants have said: ‘I don’t know which hoodie is what color when I pull it out of the washing machine once the tag is off.’ Social Surge’s response: All of their clothing items has the color, and the brand name in Braille.
“We have a group of amazing ambassadors, accessibility consultants, and people with disabilities who have been with us every step of the process, and that’s something that’s different from other people trying to create clothing for people with disabilities.” they said. “You don’t always find disabled people are actually in the process of creating those garments. That’s how you find something like a closure on the back of a garment as opposed to somewhere who someone with a disability could put it on themselves independently to the greatest extent possible.”
Diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome at age 19, a form of autonomic dysfunction that affects blood circulation, Wells connected with Social Surge fellow co-founders (based in New York) a little over two years ago through their YouTube channel, where they openly discuss the intersections of their queer and disabled identities. But it was during their college days that their ‘aha fashion moment’ happened. Wells said they were quick-rigging costumes (adding snaps/Velcro/magnets to clothing to make it easier to get on for quick changes in theater productions) in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s costume shop, when they realized how simple it was to modify clothing to make it more accessible.
“I was surprised to find most clothing was not as suitable for me now that I was a wheelchair user,” they said. “I looked around and said this is so easy, it doesn’t make the production process longer, it relatively costs the same, why aren’t people doing this? My theory? I don’t think people think about the needs of people with disabilities unless they a) have a disability or b) know someone who has a disability, even though it’s a large part of the population.”