San Francisco State University students showcase clothes for persons with disabilities

Gene Chelberg can’t ever use an umbrella. He’s blind and uses a seeing eye dog to get around, and umbrellas make it difficult for trained dogs to judge overhead obstacles. So what happens on rainy days?

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Apparel design and merchandising students Ciara Brown and Leonora-Grace Huynh work on getting the right fit ahead of the annual student-run spring fashion show. Photo: San Francisco State University

“It’s a drag. I get really good and wet,” said Chelberg, San Francisco State University’s associate vice president for student affairs.

SF State juniors in the Apparel Design and Merchandising (ADM) program tackled Chelberg’s dilemma and other unique problems facing University staff members and student veterans with disabilities. They met regularly with the students in March and April to take measurements and do fittings. Some of the students have physical disabilities and others have non-visible disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The results were modeled on Thursday, May 11, at Runway 2017: UNFORESEEN, SF State’s annual student-run spring fashion show. Graduating seniors from the ADM program, which is offered through the Department of Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics, showed their original collections at the show. It was the first time the event featured designs for people with disabilities.

In keeping with SF State’s mission of challenging the status quo, Runway 2017 was a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort that brought together a diverse array of students, faculty and staff from across campus, working together to create solutions to real-life fashion challenges. Students were responsible for all aspects of the unique event, designing the fashions, selecting the models, preparing the venue and setting the stage, giving them hands-on experience in every aspect of production.

In most areas of design, it’s usually non-disabled people telling people with disabilities what they need and what they should want, said Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and the director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and an adviser on the project.

“We’re trying to turn the tables on that and show what happens when you put the person with the disability in the position of being the expert that people need to consult and work with,” she said. “And the students are getting this experience where they’re aiming for something that’s unexpected and unusual.”

Chelberg’s consultations with two students resulted in the creation of a hood for his trench coat to keep his head dry.

Another pair of students — Leonora-Grace Huynh and Ciara Brown — designed jogging pants and a full hoodie for a student veteran with PTSD. They used stretchy material, as well as clothing donated by the University’s bookstore. They added a touch of green here and there and made several hidden pockets, secured with Velcro, where he can keep pens, paper clips, credit cards and his ID.

“When [his PTSD] is triggered, he likes to fiddle with things. It makes him feel more centered,” Huynh said.

Phyllis Wong, the wife of SF State President Leslie E. Wong, came up with the idea of pairing disabled people with the ADM program. Five student veterans participated in the project, and there was been a lot of positive feedback about the interactions with the students, Veterans Services Coordinator Ben Yang said.

“No veteran simply comes out and says, ‘I have a disability.’ But having it expressed in a different way, an artistic way, is really helpful,” he said.

Kudlick said she and Alex Locust, a student intern at the Institute who was also a part of the show, wanted to make sure that the project would be a good experience for the disabled participants.

“It’s a very delicate thing with disabilities. Some people want it to be out there, and then there are others who are ashamed of it. So you want to walk that fine line where you’re respectful but also kind of pushing some boundaries,” Kudlick said.

One staff member had an outfit designed that highlights a prominent scar that she loves showing off, Locust said. For another staff member, Maisoon Alghethy, who uses a wheelchair, two students made a longer skirt and jacket. The jacket has a zipper and sleeves that are three-fourths the usual length, making it easier to take on and off, said Alghethy, a student services professional on campus.

Danette Scheib, lecturer in the Department of Consumer & Family Services, said it was interesting hearing about the interaction between the students and the disabled models.

“I always think that the best designs come from not trying to find something pretty, but from really serving a purpose,” she said.

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