TORONTO - No matter where his clients are based, John Cook seeks to help them bypass one of their main shopping obstacles: finding comfortable garments suited to meet their mobility needs.
In 2009, Cook teamed with Jennifer Gallienne to form Koolway Sports, a Whitby, Ont.-based company specializing in designing a colourful range of outerwear for people who use wheelchairs. The garments are handsewn, and Cook said 99 per cent of their products are custom-made for the individual, which can also feature personal touches like sewn-on crests of their favourite sports teams.
Blanket fronts and backs can be zippered on and off of jackets, while zippers in the sleeves allow for the clients to be dressed while in their wheelchairs, said Gallienne. Meanwhile, a shorter back eliminates excess fabric and prevents considerable bulk from going down the back of the chair, she noted.
"There isn't a day (that goes) by when we're going for a fitting or we take delivery or we're talking to a parent on the phone where there isn't a tear in your eye," said Cook, who has been involved with the Special Olympics prior to Koolway Sports. "It's not the price of the coat or the monetary thing. It's the fact that we're able to give this back to the world of individuals who really need this."
Gallienne said the company's mandate is to foster a sense of inclusivity, especially for children.
"They should be going out to recess, they should be going to their brother's baseball games and hockey tournaments and to be able to sit in and arena and ... to be dry and to look good and feel good."
During the recent People in Motion showcase in Toronto — billed as the largest disability exhibition in Canada — Cook and Gallienne met with prospective clients and caregivers alike filing into their booth to inquire about their product range.
Malton, Ont., resident Jackie Patel has lived with multiple sclerosis for 17 years and has been using a wheelchair for nearly a decade. The Koolway client still has mobility in her upper body and is able to put on and remove the company's spring cape with ease. However, she finds meeting her other clothing needs can prove trying.
"All my clothes now are a little bit bigger and roomier than I would initially have worn my clothes," said Patel, who needs the extra room in the fabric to be able to put on and remove items more easily.
The 49-year-old said she also wears oversized shoes to accommodate her bloated feet, as well as leggings underneath her skirts and dresses to keep her legs warm.
"I would like to see more clothing for the disabled that John and Jennifer have. Maybe not coats, but pants with zippers on the inside ... from one end to the other from the inside. I don't wear pants anymore because (they're) too hard to get on and off."
Tony Dolan, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, uses a wheelchair and said he spends hundreds of dollars a year modifying clothing.
"A regular suit jacket is difficult to wear in a wheelchair, especially if you're pushing it, because the side suit jacket falls down on the wheels and gets all muddy and dirty and it is quite difficult to manoeuvre in a suit. So you need a jacket that's a bit longer in the back but shorter on the sides," he said from Charlottetown.
Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, said there are probably fewer than 25 adaptive clothing companies in Canada, but sees the niche market as one with increasing potential.
The challenge, however, is to offer items that meet key requirements for prospective customers while also factoring in the fashion element, he noted.
"I think over time, it will be more and more and more compelling to (the) industry to figure out how to bring the selection, the style that people expect," Kirke said from Ottawa. "They don't want to have two choices of colours. They want to have that, plus they want to have the fit or the design that allows them to wear that properly.
"It's a real challenge because in the end, right now, it's a small market because people make do. So again, the company that figures it out, that's great — they'll do well. Otherwise, people will be, in a sense, underserved by the clothing that's available. And the one thing I would say is there's many examples of people figuring it out."
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