Mindy Scheier, 44, is a fashion designer by trade with a flare for bold outfits. “Since I was a little girl, the reason I wanted to be in fashion was because it allows you to be who you want to be,” she tells PEOPLE. “I love to stand out.”
But for her son Oliver, 11, who has rigid spine muscular dystrophy – a rare degenerative disorder that affects his muscle tone and causes him to need leg braces – standing out because of his personal style wasn’t an option. “I was 100 percent committed to fitting in,” she says.
So, when he was 8 years old and wanted to wear jeans, she let him. That meant Scheier would need to remove his braces, and be on standby to help Oliver go to the bathroom. The experience was so jarring that Scheier started to research clothing Oliver could easily get in and out of himself and still accommodate his leg braces, but she wasn’t successful in finding anything other than “medicinal and purposeful” items. “I couldn’t believe that [stylish clothes for kids with special needs] didn’t exist – and I was going to make it happen,” she says.
In 2013, she started Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing adaptive-clothing designs and working with mainstream brands and companies to help get them to consumers.
She started by adapting existing items from department stores and Oliver’s closet at home. “My samples started taking over my dining room,” says Scheier, who is also mom to Stella, 13 and Beau, 6. “I had to move everything if we wanted to have dinner!”
After months of experimenting – combined with surveys and focus groups – Scheier discovered that there were three key elements of a garment that would help people wide range of disabilities – not just Oliver’s: nearly invisible magnetic closures by MagnaReady, alternative ways to get in and out of clothes (opens at the back instead of being pulled over the head); and easily adjustable necklines, waistbands and lengths.
A parent of one of Oliver’s classmates introduced Scheier to the Global Brands Group, the company that manufactures Tommy Hilfiger childrenswear, and in May 2015, they took on her cause.
Twenty-two pieces from Tommy Hilfiger’s spring 2016 kids’ line were adapted using Scheier’s modifications. “One of the most important parts of the design process was to make [the modifications] invisible so it looks exactly like the original version,” says Scheier. The collection is currently available online at tommyhilfiger.com, and plans for fall and holiday collections are in the works.
Scheier also helps train customer service representatives on how to speak to customers looking to purchase the adaptive pieces. “It’s a sensitive market, and rightfully so,” she explains. “For example, ‘handicapped’ is a curse word, but it’s challenging because you look around and you see it on everything,” says Scheier, who even uses the word herself occasionally describe parking spaces or bathrooms – but not people.
“It’s more helping understand that there are more modern ways to refer to people with disabilities,” she says. “I refer to Oliver as ‘differently-abled.’ The other school of thought is that you identify the person first and then say the disability.”
Scheier says she’s also okay with the phrase “disabled.” “What everybody agrees on is that the person should come first,” she says.
It’s no surprise that Oliver is one of the biggest fans of Hilfiger’s collection and this milestone his mom has reached on her mission. “I can actually do my pants and shirt buttons!” he says, counting the red polo shirt among his favorite pieces. “I just love her for it, and the amazing work that she’s done.”
Says Scheier, “I see a huge difference in his self-confidence thanks to being able to dress himself… He absolutely sees himself as a typical 11-year-old, but through this process he’s become even more comfortable with the fact that his ‘normal’ is with muscular dystrophy. He can’t run, he can’t do what the other kids try to do. In his world, that’s normal to him. And I think that’s given him a sense of peace – He can see himself like every other kid, but acknowledge his differences.”
Scheier hopes that her innovations will expand the mind of the fashion industry at large, and bring the fact that the differently-abled are a vast market to light.
“Like petite- and plus-size departments, adaptive clothing was a category that has never been tapped into before,” she says. Childrenswear is just the beginning. “The notion that if you’re disabled you don’t care about what you look like or how you dress is so wrong. Everybody should have that right. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the caregiver who wants their wife, son, daughter or best friend to look beautiful,” she says. “I want to encourage people to think, ‘What if I didn’t have options?'”
“My dream is to have a mandate that a certain percentage of clothing has to be adaptive,” she continues. “It’s no different than any building you walk into having handicapped bathrooms and sidewalks having ramps.”
But it’s not only the fashion industry that’s evolving – it’s the world at large.
“You can tie a socio-economic cause into the direction of your business,” she says. “For Oliver, he’s seen me turn a problem into something amazing – so far beyond our family. It’s great for all kids to be exposed to other families who have vastly different disabilities or issues. I think it makes them feel a lot less alone. And I think it makes them all feel very grateful for what [they] have. One idea can literally change lives.”