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Bay Path Occupational Therapy Students Design Accessible Clothing at MIT Open Style Lab

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Manika Makhijani G’15 and Sarah Spencer G ‘16 are drawn to occupational therapy for the same reason: the chance to make a difference in the lives of others. When these Bay Path students learned about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Style Lab at a conference, they realized it was the perfect opportunity to gain hands-on experience doing just that.

Open Style Lab is a 10-week program that is based at MIT, founded to bring awareness to the need for adaptable yet stylish clothing. Participants are members of multidisciplinary teams comprised of one engineering student, one occupational therapy student, and one design student who work with and for a client who has a disability, designing a functional, fashionable item that’s tailor-made to address their most essential needs.

“My client, Chiu, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and was losing a lot of function in her upper extremities. Although one of her favorite pastimes was taking walks along the Charles River, she had trouble because her arm muscles had atrophied—she said it felt like she was holding 100lb dumbbells in each hand,” says Manika. “My teammate and I wanted to design something that would be compatible with her wardrobe and provide her the relief she needed.”

“Heidi, the client my team and I worked with, is an adventurer, but she has a very rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her shoulders, upper arms, and lower legs, as well as her fine motor skills,” says Sarah. “Tasks that may seem simple can be very fatiguing for her, which affects her dressing choices. She can’t wear pants because it takes so much energy just to pull them up.” 

Each of the eight teams were challenged to create three prototypes to present to their clients and a group of mentors who provide feedback on what is and isn’t working.

“Our main design challenges to consider were comfort, style—we wanted to honor Heidi’s preference for flamboyant yet classy pieces—and the trickiest challenge was figuring out how to design the pants so that they would take a minimal amount of energy to don and doff,” says Sarah. “Our final prototype, which we named ‘Duet,’ reduced the time it took Heidi to dress in pants by 75 percent.”

“My team’s final prototype was called ‘Breaze’—it’s breathable, and it’s easy to use and wear,” says Manika. “I was saddened to learn that Chiu passed away in October. She remains a motivator for me as an OT wanting to make a difference, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know her.”

At the core of the experience for Sarah and Manika was the takeaway knowledge that building rapport with clients is an integral part of succeeding in the field of occupational therapy, a skill they honed while participating in Open Style Lab. “And, having the opportunity to build a network for transdisciplinary collaboration as well as with the mentors who are pioneers in accessible design was amazing,” Sarah adds.

Learn more about Team Chiu and Team Heidi on the MIT Open Style Lab blog.