If not for having a grandmother with osteoarthritis, an aunt with Parkinson’s disease, and a prolific seamstress for a mother, 57-year-old Ruth J. Clark of Kamloops, British Columbia, likely never would have become North America’s recognized advocate for the design and manufacture of functional and stylish clothing for people with disabilities.
Her grandmother went from using a cane to a wheelchair. “Then my aunt with Parkinson’s had neurosurgery on her in 1968 and was on the (operating) table five hours,” said Clark. “The doctor nicked the wrong thing. She had a surgery-induced stroke and was paralyzed on her right side the rest of her life.” Her aunt passed away in 2004.
Finally, Clark’s mother was a volunteer who modified clothing at a provincial nursing home for men. All this left quite an impression.
In 1992, while employed as a disability services librarian at the University of British Columbia, she attended a major disabilities expo in Vancouver. There, she met a women designing and making functional clothing for children with disabilities. One thing led to another, and Clark eventually began designing and making clothing for adults with disabilities.
For her, clothing for people without disabilities should be functional and stylish. As for functional, she said people using wheelchairs full-time should have the body of their trousers completely re-engineered to prevent injury. “Pressure sores on the lower back are significantly caused by the improper placement of the center back of the waistband near weight-bearing areas on the lower spine,” she said.Also, people with below-knee amputations using a prosthesis have trouble wearing trousers. In part, she designs trousers with invisible zippers to allow for easier prosthesis removal.
“And someone with medium to advanced Alzheimer’s disease has trouble with zippers, but (usually) can remember how to do buttons,” she said. “So they need jackets and coats with buttons. But the problem is we have become a zipper nation.” She said people with arthritis, poor vision, paralysis, and stroke also benefit from buttons versus zippers.
Besides managing her company, Fashion Moves Inclusive Designs, Clark has been educating fashion designers on the clothing needs of people with disabilities and running an international garment design competition. Recently, she was selected as an international judge for an inclusive design competition in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her biggest frustration, she said, has been the overall fashion industry’s failure to recognize a potentially huge market.