Neil Sherman’s father lived to 90, which was good.
But toward the end he couldn’t dress himself, and Sherman took to buying sweatpants, then cutting the elastic bands out of the ankles so his father’s caregiver could more easily get them on and off.
Which helped spawn a business idea: A store stocked with clothes designed specifically for people who are physically challenged — people with disabilities, with missing limbs, people in wheelchairs, people who simply have trouble raising their arms above their head.
The Internet offers access to so-called adaptive clothing. But you can’t feel the fabric on the computer screen, and you can’t really tell whether what seems like a becoming shade of periwinkle will actually complement your features.
Enter Sherman and business partner Lisa Brodacz, who on Sept. 20 will open Accessible Wear in what used to be a vitamin shop in West Allis, Wis.
“I’ve come across so many friends who have had problems with their parents, sisters, brothers who need all this care, and they can’t find clothing for them,” said Brodacz, a former sales director for the Wisconsin Bankers Association. “You can’t find this at a Target or a Kohl’s or a Boston Store. It’s specialty clothing.”
Drawing on personal savings — they haven’t borrowed for their start-up capital — Brodacz and Sherman are filling the 2,500 square-foot shop with easy-to-use items of clothing.
“Some have snaps, some have Velcro, some have magnets,” Sherman said.
The inventory includes a line of magnet-equipped shirts worn by, among others, Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. Other clothes come from Canadian couture designer Izzy Camilleri, who has created fashions that fit well on women seated in wheelchairs.
Brodacz and Sherman may have a good-sized market.
According to the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California, San Francisco, there are 1.7 million wheelchair or scooter riders in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, estimates that 4.3 million Americans find it difficult or impossible to grasp small objects — think buttons or zipper talons — and 6.6 million have the same trouble reaching over their head.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Diana Sullivan said of the soon-to-open shop.
She’s more than familiar with the challenges. Sullivan is disability rights and access specialist at advocacy and resource group IndependenceFirst. And her daughter, who died four years ago at age 26, lived with multiple disabilities that required clothing adaptations such as cutting the back out of a winter jacket and sewing in an extra panel so it could be wrapped around her wheelchair.
“There really weren’t things that were readily, easily bought at stores, so we had to kind of think outside of the box,” Sullivan said.
Jill Potkay likes the Accessible Wear idea, too. A 32-year-old Milwaukee resident who uses a wheelchair, Potkay finds that “things like buttons and hooks are difficult for me.”
And she said pants simply aren’t designed to fit well on someone sitting in a wheelchair — they’re not long enough and tend to bunch up. “It looks like you’re wearing short pants,” Potkay said.
Brodacz said she and Sherman already have been contacting assisted-living centers about visiting them with clothing samples in a sort of trunk show. Response has been positive.
She feels the store will offer advantages over Internet shopping because “you know what you’re buying, and you can try it on.” The shop also will employ a seamstress.
“So we can hem the pants, take in the sleeve,” Sherman said. “We can do easy alterations right away.”
Like Brodacz, Sherman doesn’t have any background in retailing clothing. He’s retired from the heating and air-conditioning field. “This is new to us, but we get it, and we understand who we’re trying to please,” he said.
“We can’t cure anyone, but we can make their life easier.”
© 2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services