The Adventure of Getting Dressed When You’re a Wheelchair User

Back in 1934, the local press asked the football coach at Ohio State University what his team’s chances were of beating rival Michigan. Francis Schmidt replied, “Those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as everyone else.”  This statement alone makes it obvious that Schmidt was not a wheelchair user. I hate pants. I mean, I effing hate pants.  It can take me up to 10 minutes just to put on a pair of pants, and don’t even get me started on socks and shoes when my feet are having a Stay-Puft marshmallow man day.

Trying to get dressed when you can’t stand up at all or have difficulty standing or balancing can be one of the most difficult parts of the day for wheelchair user.  Those of us who have upper body control and to some measure of strength have it a little bit easier. Paraplegics might be able to maneuver their legs a little bit better since they’re usually completely limp, but they also often have no feeling. That means if something in their clothing is poking them or catching on a toe, they may not realize it. As for me, I have a considerable amount of spasticity in my legs, which means they sometimes don’t like to bend. This is not a benefit when you’re trying to put on pants. I’ve never tried to put pants on or take them off of someone else, but I imagine this can be a challenge for caregivers as well.

Here’s the crazy process I have to go through to put on pants. Manually lift my right leg to cross it over my left leg. Put my right foot into the right pants leg. Uncross my leg. Place the opening into the left pants leg either on my power chair’s footplate or on the ground in a way that it’s wide enough for me to somehow aim my left foot into the opening. Manually lift my left leg and attempt to place my nonworking left foot inside the opening. Pull up my pants as high as they will go while in a seated position, which is usually around mid thigh. Lean as far as I can to the right and pull up the left side of my pants. Lean as far as I can to the left and pull up the right side of my pants. Repeat these last two steps about 15 times each. I am extraordinarily lucky that I can still stand up. Imagine this process including transferring back and forth between a toilet seat in your wheelchair when you can’t stand up at all.

Ugh… Case in point.

Let’s move on to shoes. I love shoes. I really do. When I was still walking, I had no trouble spending $500 or more on a finely handcrafted pair of Italian leather stilettos. Many women in manual wheelchairs still wear stilettos, and technically I’m able to wear high heels with a wider bottom so that my ankles don’t flop to the side. However, I have this beautiful condition called edema. It’s common among people who sit around all the time, and it’s the accumulation of fluid in your feet and lower legs. This means that my feet have a tendency to look like loaves of bread if I don’t engage in enough physical activity. Which is hardly ever. I know, I’m terrible. Thanks to this, getting many kinds of shoes over that hump on the top of my feet can be difficult, if not impossible. Even sneakers can be difficult because I’m losing dexterity in my fingers, so tying shoelaces can be an adventure. What I would do to have badass looking Velcro shoes like some toddlers walking out of Stride Rite at the mall.

This simple jersey pull-over dress from Old Navy is SO easy to wear!

Surely blouses and T-shirts and other tops must be easier, right? Not if you’ve got para belly. This condition, which sounds like the hottest new kids toy or singing girl group, is when your abdominal muscles can’t contract due to paralysis or other medical condition. It causes your belly to stick out when you’re sitting, even though your stomach might be completely flat when you’re standing up. I can still contract my stomach muscles, although not very well. However, my belly sticks out when I sit because I’ve had two children and the skin around my stomach isn’t what it was when I was in my 20s. This means that pants that are tight around the waist aren’t often flattering. I don’t remember the last time I actually buttoned the top button on my jeans. Tight T-shirts look great around my boobs, but not usually around my waist. Tops that are loose and more flowing might look really pretty when you’re standing up, but can make your hips and your butt look wider than they are because of the way the top lays on your chair when you’re sitting down.

Dresses are hit or miss. I like bandage and body con dresses to an extent because they kind of squeeze everything together. However, they almost always bunch up around my stomach – again, sitting. Flowing dresses are definitely more comfortable, but have the potential to make you look bigger than you are, and if they’re too long you have to worry about the dress getting caught in your wheels. Don’t even get me started on shorts. Two words: pancake thighs.

Some of the best news on the horizon for wheelchair users who love fashion is that more and more clothing brands are delving into adaptive clothing. The first designers for these types of clothes, which usually involve a lot of Velcro and magnetic buttons, were more focused on function than fashion. That’s great if you just want to cover up your private parts, but some of us are a little bit more vain and actually want to look attractive when we go out. Luckily, adaptive clothing has gone mainstream, and you can find a good number of styles through Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, Target, and even Zappos.  If you want to support smaller and local businesses, several entrepreneurial wheelchair users have started their own clothing lines to meet the needs of people like them. For example, my friend Jane Hash runs the nonprofit Classy Little Fashions Foundation that makes custom designs for people with non-standard body types.

I remember when the plastic straw bans really got going not that long ago, and I got into several arguments with people who couldn’t understand why people with certain disabilities couldn’t just bring their own straws. My perspective is that we have enough burdens in our daily lives, things we have to bring with us just to survive, and things we have to worry about just to go out in public that we don’t need one more requirement. One example I gave was getting dressed in the morning. I have friends in wheelchairs who have to get up several hours before they go out just because it takes them and their caregivers that long just to bathe them, feed them, and dress them. Even though I can stand up with a lot of support for short periods of time, I have to be extremely careful when I get dressed. I have osteoporosis now (as many wheelchair users do), and if I fall down while trying to put on an item of clothing, I could easily break a bone.

The best advice that I can offer is that you find a system that works for you, and you focus on items of clothing that make your life easier. God knows I own certain things that are a huge pain in the ass to wear, but like I said, sometimes my vanity precedes my common sense. I’ve started wearing more dresses that have no zippers and I can just pull on over my head. I’ve started wearing pants with an elastic waist that are easier to pull up. I’ve started wearing high heeled booties that look sexy, but cover up any unattractive swelling in my feet. I’ve also learned to accept that if people are looking at me, usually they’re not focused on my feet for my general stomach region. And if they are, they’re probably devotees and you probably don’t want to be anywhere around them anyway.

And if you’re reading this as a fully able-bodied person who can literally hop in and out of the shower in five minutes or less and be ready and dressed for work in 15 minutes or less, thank your lucky stars. Seriously. I’d be willing to bet money that you never considered the ability to easily put on socks as a blessing. I also have absolutely no use for anyone who complains to me that they have nothing to wear. Well, unless it’s me because I forgot to do laundry again.

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  1. Wow you have described my mornings perfectly but you didn’t describe the best part, the dreaded Bra. I wish it was still the Sixties and I was still 25 but alas, It’s not pretty, no bra on a sixty plus. Although the best part of old age is you Don’t care and truth be told no one is looking anyway.

    • LOL!!! I totally forgot about that! I have to wrap mine backwards so I can hook it over my chest, then rotate it around since I can’t reach behind my back. Too funny!

  2. I know what you mean! Getting dressed and clothing is challenging for wheelchair users. Coats and shoes are especially hard. By the way many paraplegics, like me, have stiff and spastic legs, not limp ones. While this often keeps the legs looking better it does make transfers and dressing harder.