Special Olympics partnership with Parsons School of Design makes uniforms more inclusive


How can athletic uniforms be more inclusive? Through a new partnership, Special Olympics and Parsons School of Design try to answer that question.

Wearing a uniform implies standardization, a sameness that can be replicated across several bodies with minimal need for adaptation. In many cases, such an approach may work, but there are others who are left behind when designers don’t move past a general, often idealized idea of what it means to have a human body. Such a process works backward, from this abstract conception to the concrete person. However, there is another method that is more particular and inclusive — a human-centered one that begins with individuals and their specific needs first

A partnership between Special Olympics and the Parsons School of Design is working to rectify this situation by designing uniforms for Special Olympics athletes. These designs take into account the athletes’ disabilities and work to reverse the process that has too often left such persons ignored in the fashion world

The initial connection was forged in 2017 when, at a conference in Turkey, Special Olympics board member Natalia Vodianova met with the dean of Parsons. The two began talking about the possibility of a fully inclusive design class at Parsons. The school had worked to accommodate persons with physical disabilities but had not yet attempted to design for those with intellectual disabilities. This idea was brought to Brendan McCarthy — the then-director of Parsons — who took over the initiative and created a class that was first offered in January 2020. As McCarthy told me, “Our missions intersected around social justice and inclusion and we started a conversation to explore what were the possibilities if we could bring sports, fashion, design education all together to try to imagine a new inclusive future.”

Photo Credit: Parsons School of Design and Jenny Shao
Photo Credit: Parsons School of Design and Jenny Shao /

At this initial course, in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person classes around the world, five ice skaters attended the courses and worked with the design students as they created new uniforms for these skaters. In the second course, offered in January of 2021, the goal was to design for a team sport rather than an individual one as they had the year before. Accordingly, they worked with track and field athletes and tennis players, even garnering input from the WTA with players coming in to critique the designs

The first class began with students doing preliminary research on the sport itself, learning what the uniforms needed to be able to withstand so their design could meet the needs of the general athlete. Following that, Special Olympics athletes would speak to the students about their sports and their lives, presenting the unique challenges of their sport and disability. Each athlete would then pair with a student and together they would discuss more specific elements that would make the uniform particular to them. Having already studied the needs of figure skaters, along with the rules and regulations regarding their equipment, “their motivations and their interests drove what we were focusing on,” according to Abby Gaskin, one of the students in that initial class.

Gaskin worked alongside Mickey, one of the ice skaters. Having already done research, it was Mickey’s motivations and interests that she focused on as the design moved forward; his love of the color blue was a major influence. Also, skating backward was a major concern for him. This led Abby to consider putting extra padding on the legs or add compression in certain areas to increase his comfort and safety

Photo Credit: Parsons School of Design and Caroline Adamy
Photo Credit: Parsons School of Design and Caroline Adamy /

While the students were in charge of the actual design, the process was a two-way street. “It wasn’t as much as I was designing garments for [my athlete]… it was that I present ideas, Mickey would present ideas and then both of us would come together and figure out that in between of what I’m interested in making and what he’s interested in actually wearing and then we’d figure out how to create that.”

“In almost three decades in the Fashion Industry I have seen and participated in all manner of collaborations but none more impressive, immersive and brilliant as that between the Special Olympics and Parsons. To witness and help guide both the designers and the athletes working side by side with their professors to create groundbreaking designs for everyone to enjoy and wear is the essence of inclusion” said Special Olympics Champion Ambassador, Nigel Barker who participated during the midterm and final classes to critique the students’ designs.

Special Olympics New York was also very instrumental in this collaboration. They worked with local athletes that registered for each semester. “I really liked my experience with Parsons School of Design. They made tennis clothes for people with disabilities. I liked meeting all the people in the class. The tennis outfits were awesome.” said Liza Ambrosini, a Special Olympics New York athlete.

Special Olympics partnership is taking uniforms beyond one-design-fits-all

The students did not create a generalized, one-design-fits-all version of their uniforms. Instead, each pairing of student and athlete created their own set of garments for that particular athlete. In the process, they were guided by the athlete’s preferences: if a student really liked a particular color, it would be the dominant one and if they were inspired by a superhero or video game character, a subtle nod to them may have been included. Every single design choice was made to “empower and create a sense of strength and confidence in the athlete” that would not have been present otherwise

For Gaskin, her experience in this class reconceptualized her entire design philosophy. Looking back, she says that she had a “self-centered approach,” but that “this class opened my eyes completely to working with other people and how powerful it can be to collaborate with other people.” The class raised a number of crucial questions for her such as “How can my designs impact other people?” and “How can other people impact my designs?” The experience opened her eyes to the “possibilities of fashion and how transformative it can be

The designs are all contingent on the athlete themselves — their sport and their disability. Many athletes with autism dislike scratchy materials and tags while those with cerebral palsy find buttoning difficult. For the delegation outfits — those that everyone on the squad will wear — clips will be used instead of buttons and no tags will be present in the hopes that the designs will be as inclusive as possible.

The inclusion of those with disabilities is an important horizon of social justice that is often ignored according to Megan Gausemel, the director of awareness planning and operations for Special Olympics. “We talk about social justice, but oftentimes people with disabilities are not included.” Remedying this is a major part of what the partnership with Parsons is all about in her eyes. Now, “students who are going into the high fashion design world have that experience of working with someone with disabilities that they can bring to a high-level fashion house

Special Olympics, despite being best known for the athletic events they lead, are much more then an athletic organization. They also provide health programming for persons with intellectual disabilities, receive funding from the CDC, and work to ensure inclusive educational settings. While sports are at the center of what they do, they are a means, “the vehicle [allowing] athletes to step out of their comfort zone and become fully functioning members of society,” in the words of Gausemel.

Jason Teitler, a Special Olympics senior vice president, global communications, echoes this: “One of the reasons we don’t call Special Olympics The Special Olympics is because we’re not just a moment in time. It’s every day of the week… doing very exciting things including sports, but also well beyond sports.” Similarly, Teitler emphasized that this is why the organization refers to athletes as “Special Olympics athletes” rather than “Special Olympians.” It’s a subtle, but crucial distinction

Looking back, McCarthy calls this partnership “one of the most transformative partnerships the school of fashion has ever been engaged in.” In his opinion, co-creating designs alongside persons with disability instead of designing items for them transform what fashion can do. By prioritizing partnership instead of access alone, it has “really opened up what inclusivity can look like from an educational perspective.” Altogether, it is a way to concretely show the importance of these principles instead of merely claiming their value. McCarthy hopes it can be a model that can be used to show how, through co-design and collaboration, to invite people with intellectual disabilities to the proverbial table, not only by educators but by people everywhere regardless of their field.

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