Dressing for the great outdoors

(Edmonton) Shauna Paisley Cooper has always loved the outdoors. Until she was paralyzed by a mountain-biking accident three years ago that severed her spine, the mother of two was an avid athlete, who ran triathlons, played basketball and camped with her family.

Since then, she spends as much time as she can outside with her twin daughters, teaching them to ride their bikes, play soccer and enjoy nature. But with Alberta’s ever-changing and often bitter weather, it isn’t always easy.

Dressing for the outdoors can be complicated, she says. “Jackets don’t fit. I cut them in the back so they fit around my hips. The jacket can’t be too bulky, or wheeling and driving are hard,” says Cooper. “It’s hard to find good technical and outdoor apparel for wheelchair users.”

Enter University of Alberta professor Megan Strickfaden and two of her material culture design students, Vanessa Zembal and Shauna Force. Bundled with several classmates against a sharp wind and some wet snow, they accompanied Paisley Cooper on a three-hour trail ride into the gullies of Emily Murphy Park, to get a firsthand look at the kind of clothing needed for such an outdoor adventure.

“This was more than a trail ride,” said Strickfaden, who teaches in the Department of Human Ecology. “The goal of the class, Material Culture in Practice, is to conduct user-centred research into issues around design—in this case, functional clothing. Because it is such a different situation in this case, the students needed to dig into what it is like to live with a disability.”

The trail ride, using special wheeled equipment resembling rickshaws, was arranged with two clients including Paisley Cooper, through the Canadian Paraplegic Association.

She was eager to take part in the expedition, not only for the fun of it, but also for the knowledge that could come from it. Having had her own career in clothing retail management, Paisley Cooper was naturally interested in a project that could potentially improve design and fit for people with disabilities.

As the journey got underway in the river valley, Zembal and Force quickly got a new understanding of the challenges facing people like Paisley Cooper when they take on the great outdoors in extreme temperatures.

“Their circulation is poor, so they get cold all the time. Accommodating for that thermal loss and heat issues is really important, especially when designing for an outdoor winter activity,” Zembal noted. The researchers also noticed that blankets used as lap robes during the trail ride quickly became sodden, and clothing bunched inconveniently around lifts, chairs and catheters.

Besides the physical changes needed to the outdoor clothing, psychological “comfort” factors need to be considered as well when designing adaptive clothing.

“A lot of it is designed for the function of the clothing and the wearer, rather than accommodating for a social factor,” said Zembal, who plans to study clothing marketing. For instance, colour choices and blending in with other people by wearing common items like jeans, were two simple but meaningful findings.

Based on the field notes, video and photos taken during the outing, Zembal and Force drew up some recommendations for better designs of outdoor clothing. They hope their work will create a new school of thought for designers in a field that right now, offers what Zembal calls “stagnant” clothing choices.

“It was rewarding to discover that there is a gap to fill,” said Force, who hopes for a career in costume construction, and has a T-shirt business already in the works. “There are a lot of people with mobility impairment who do want to go outside and participate in activities designed for them. They want the clothing to go with them and their caregivers.”

Better gear can’t come along soon enough for Paisley Cooper. “It’s important for wheelchair users, people like me, to have access to technically advanced, fashionable and tailored-for-sitting apparel that enhances self-esteem to encourage wheelchair users to explore outdoor adventures.”

The time she spent wheeling along with Strickfaden, the students and her own family, was unforgettable, she added. “The snow falling was just beautiful. I didn’t think I would be able to do a trail like that ever again.”