Glass meets Dressability, the charity supporting people with disabilities through bespoke clothing alterations

FOR many, dressing can be akin to sitting under the artist’s observant brush, converting a blank canvas into a kaleidoscope of hues and peacock finery. But for those experiencing mobility issues and limited dexterity, dressing can pose untold difficulty, removing one’s sense of   independence and modesty.

As far back as 1998, the charity Dressability identified a glaring gap in the design of elegant clothes that suit individuals with disabilities, motivating the founders to establish a bespoke service that adapts clothing according to practical needs. By replacing zips with magnets, adding larger belt loops and stitching into side seams, Dressability has proven the creation of complex clothing does not mean that style is sacrificed.

According to the latest government figures available, there are more than 11 million people living with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability in the UK. As a charity that receives no statutory funding whatsoever, Dressability relies solely on financial contributions and fabric donations. Even during the long months of lockdown, Dressability’s sewing machines continued to whirl in the background, committed to supporting those suffering from the consequences of chronic disability.

While the stories that appear on the Dressability’s website underline the importance of its work, it also represents a much-needed clarion call for the visibility of disabled people and their rights. To learn more about the charity’s life-changing work, Glass speaks to manager Sharon Tombs.


Dressability - Humanitarian Feature

Sharon Tombs, manager of Dressability

What first motivated you and your co-founders to establish the charity?
Sian Barrie founded the charity in response to working as a career and encountering several struggles with undressing and dressing the patients. She saw a need to develop a solution for people suffering from limited dexterity and clearly, there was one.

As a small, independent charity, what are the most significant challenges arising from your work and how do you overcome these hurdles?
Prior to Covid-19, we adapted 616 items a year for around 300 clients. As we really are a bespoke service, each one of those clients poses a new challenge for us and it’s integral we provide the best solution for an individual’s unique needs. The process of altering a piece of clothing can vary vastly. If we sew an invisible zipper on the inside leg of a pair of jeans so somebody in a wheelchair can access their catheter bag, that might take you two hours.

With several services withdrawn during lockdown and associated restrictions, many charities have voiced concern that people with disabilities are being neglected. Is this a problem you have encountered and how are you supporting individuals during this time?
Despite the pandemic, people are still having strokes and many are still developing long-term health conditions. We chose not to furlough our staff during the several lockdowns and utilised our services to distribute 4,500 pieces of PPE. Due to a high risk of infection, we have been unable to visit clients.

We have been forced to devise new methods of catering for those who need urgent access to clothing support. We created a kit bag that can be directly delivered to the client and assists in replacing a zip with Velcro, extending the waist of trousers for somebody who’s in a wheelchair for long periods, and trouser loops for anybody who struggles to pull up their trousers – it allows them to have independence and restore a sense of dignity.

There are an estimated 11 million people living with a disability in the UK. Is Dressability striving to expand nationally from its Swindon base?

We have a business plan to hopefully increase our client service delivery by around 30 per cent within the next five years. Currently, our radius is about 25 miles, but we also offer a full postal service and receive inquiries from all over the country.

Quite often there will be somebody from another part of the UK who has recently been diagnosed with a long-term health problem and we help by offering a free consultation over the phone, along with advice with how to manage the disability.

Do you receive any form of financial backing and statutory funding?
We receive no statutory funding at all. We have to raise around £100,000 a year to accommodate our operations. Every penny has to be raised through either grants and trusts in the UK, or via donations.

It’s a constant balancing act between focusing our time on offering more services or directing our attention to raising more money. We subsidise around 85 per cent of our expenditures, so the client only covers a very small amount of the overall cost. Financial and fabric donations are vital to our performance.

Currently, we are overrun with school uniform alterations. Imagine you are a young child starting school – it’s bad enough that you’re the only person in the class in a wheelchair – visualise how that feels when you can’t wear the required school uniform.

For a child in that position, we would attach either Velcro or magnets behind the buttons of a coat so that the adaptation is completely invisible, while allowing the child to dress independently. Equality and discretion are central to our work.

How important is it to Dressability’s mission that style and individualism is not compromised for functionality?
Andy, one of our clients, wears a prosthetic leg and was also born without hands, and has arms that end just above elbow length. He once said to me “when you’ve got no hands and you meet somebody, you can’t shake their hand.

All you’ve got is that first impression with your clothes”. How poignant is that? Style should not be sacrificed to ease a disability or mobility impairment. We respect individualism and allow clients to retain their individuality.

How hopeful are you that clothing for people living with a disability will one day be incorporated into fashion design?
Some designers are creating clothes with a specific focus on disability and providing access to those who need clothing support. But they’re few and far between. Tailoring clothes for people who are experiencing mobility issues is really at the heart of our practice.

We are also passionate about recycling. We don’t want to be an organisation that just says, “Oh, just go and buy something and we will alter it.”

Clothes are very sentimental items and people – older people especially – often treasure a suit they bought 20 years ago. But their advancing mobility issue means that it is no longer suitable to wear to their grandchild’s wedding.

If we can adapt that suit, a piece that they already love and are familiar with, then why shouldn’t we? Sustainability is intrinsic to Dressability’s work and we shouldn’t keep buying and buying.

by Sophia Ford-Palmer 

Find out more about Dressability