A Manual Wheelchair User’s Guide to Clothing
Shopping for clothes as a wheelchair user can be extremely frustrating: shirts are too tight in the shoulders and ride up as you push. Pants either bunch up and sit too high or threaten to slide around and fall to your ankles. After multiple requests for clothing recommendations, I’ve put together this guide to help wheelchair users find clothes that make them look good while staying comfortable and mobile.
Know Your Measurements
The best to find clothes that fit well is to know your measurements. Shirt measurements have two numbers: one for neck size and one for sleeve length. If your shirt measurements are 16 32/33, you can wear a shirt with a 16 inch neck and a 32 or 33 inch sleeve. For pants, the numbers represent the waist size and leg length. A pair of jeans with a waist of 30 and a length of 32 would a 30x32.
Find a Fit That Works for You
In addition to sizing, you’ll also need to know what fit works best for you. Different brands are going to list different fits, but the most common jean styles are skinny, slim, regular, relaxed, and loose. Personally, I prefer a relaxed or loose fit with a straight leg. This type of jean leaves plenty of room in the leg so they don’t pinch while you sit in your wheelchair. Once you find a brand and style that works for you, stick with it. Not only will this guarantee that every pair of jeans you buy will fit, but it will also make it easier to buy clothes online (something that’s notoriously difficult to do).
Shirt fits vary wildly between brands, but most are a variation on either “standard/traditional” and “trim”. Traditional fits have more room in the chest and waist as well as the arms. Slim fits are generally narrower in the chest and arms and tapered in the waist. For most wheelchair users, the trim fits aren’t going to have as much room in the chest and shoulders. However, a lot of brands have started offering a fitted/athletic fit that is broader in the chest and shoulders and narrower at the waist.
When trying on a pair of pants for the first time, shift your weight side‐to‐side to see how well the fabric moves with you. You want to make sure that they won’t pinch or bunch when you shift your body in your chair. The pant legs should easily cover your socks and not ride up while you’re sitting.
For shirts, find a fit that is looser in the shoulders and narrower at the waist. You’ll need room in the shoulders to keep the shirt in place while you push your chair and and a narrow waist will help keep the fabric from rubbing against your wheels. When you put on a shirt for the first time, stop and ask yourself how it feels on your body. Move around the room. Lean forward, backwards, and sideways. Flex your shoulders and move your arms like you’re trying to push up a hill. It should feel secure around the waist, but still be loose enough to allow you full range of motion at the shoulders. If you can’t cross your arms and touch each shoulder, it’s too tight.
Know Your Fabrics
Fabric can be just as important as fit when it comes to finding comfortable clothes. For example, a polyester blend gives clothing more “stretch” which is great when you need something to stay tucked in or you want a little more room in the shoulders while still keeping a fitted look. But, it’s not very breathable. Cotton is breathable but tough to keep tucked in without extra fabric.
For folks who are at risk for pressure sores or other skin issues, choosing the right fabric is extremely important. You want to make sure that what you’re wearing doesn’t put you at risk for skin breakdown.
Cashmere and silk are amazingly soft and comfortable but have a tendency to catch on the hands and knuckles of anyone with thick calluses (e.g., wheelchair users).
I highly encourage you to take note of the fabrics that make up your favorite clothes and choose similar ones when shopping.
Always Tuck In Your Shirt
When wearing a shirt, always tuck it in. This includes t‐shirts. “But tucking in your t‐shirt is super dorky!”, you say. And it is—if you’re standing up. For wheelchair users, tucking in a t‐shirt doesn’t look bad and it has the added benefit of keeping your clothes out of your wheels and stops them from riding up or bunching.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
Unless your going for a more formal look, I highly recommend always rolling up the sleeves of your dress shirt. This will prevent the sleeves from getting dirty and prevent wear on the cuffs.
For Button‐ups, Wear an Undershirt
When wearing a button‐up shirt, always wear an undershirt. Not only will this protect your shirt against sweat stains, it will help keep your shirt tucked in properly and stop it from riding up. I also recommend that you tuck your undershirt into your underwear. Now, some people will argue that tucking your undershirt into your underwear is super dorky and you shouldn’t do it. But, I’ve found that it helps keep your shirt in place better than just tucking your undershirt into your pants. And, it’s not like people can tell how you’ve tucked your shirt in.
Always Wear a Belt
To keep your pants from bunching up, wear a belt and keep it fairly tight around your waist. This will also keep your shirt from riding up when you shift your wait or lean over in your chair to push.
For dress clothes, you might want to consider getting something tailored. Tailoring your clothes guarantees that you’ll be comfortable and stylish for an evening out, a wedding, or a job interview. And it’s not terribly expensive. In fact, a lot of higher‐end department stores will offer free alterations with the purchase of formalwear.
When working with a tailor, describe how your body moves in the chair and show them how you’re most likely to be positioned when sitting still. When describing how I need a shirt or suit jacket tailored, I'll often say “I need enough range in the shoulders to get in a fist fight and look good doing it”. For pants, I explain how I need a “standing” fit in a seated position: no wrinkles in the legs, socks covered, and enough room in the inseam to avoid pinching.
Develop a Style and System
Clothing is complicated and you’ll need to spend time trying out different styles and fits to figure out what works best for you. Take your time and choose and wear pieces consciously. Learn what brands work best for your body and stick with them. Test each pieces of new clothing by moving around in a way that matches your day‐to‐day movements. Clothes are, ultimately, very personal items and what works for most folks may not be best for you. Take the time to learn what fits you best and to develop a system for finding pieces that are both functional and make you feel good about the way you look.