Abilitee Adaptive Wear is a brand on a mission to create adaptive apparel for people with disabilities and medical needs that’s both fashionable and functional. We’re so excited to sell some of Abilitee’s empowering products at Aerie.com, including sleeves, waistbands, ostomy covers, insulin pump belts and cath clips. We’re also proud to feature our very own Graphic Designer, Brittany Hines, modeling her new Abilitee Insulin Pump Belt and more adaptive accessories on our site! We talked with Abilitee co-founders, Dr. Julie Sanchez and Marta Elena, about the impact of their change-making brand, and Brittany about her experience living with diabetes.
What inspired you to create Abilitee?
Julie: My patients and their families. The idea for our first design – an adaptive shirt with feeding-tube access – came from an encounter with a young patient and his mother. After the operation, which involved surgically placing a feeding tube in the boy’s abdomen, I met with his mother to discuss his discharge. The surgery was successful and we were optimistic he would recover well, but his mom was visibly distraught. As she broke down crying, she shared with me the difficulties of caring for her son, who is also on the autism spectrum. Before the feeding tube, getting (and keeping) him dressed was already a challenge. Now, his mother was worried about him pulling out his tube too. It was at this moment that I realized how much more I could be doing for my patients. Honestly, I felt like a failure.
As a surgeon, we take pride in great health outcomes. Our metrics are pain control, no infections, no complications, early discharge, and so on. We do not focus enough on how well we empower our patients to succeed in their daily lives once they leave the hospital. This was the motivation for designing our first adaptive item, and the impetus for taking on similar adaptive challenges through what is now our growing company, Abilitee Adaptive Wear.
Marta Elena: In 2014, Julie came to me with this challenge. As an artist and fashion enthusiast with my own plans for a career in medicine, it was easy for me to get on board. In middle school, I began sewing my own clothes as a way to express my creativity and individuality. I would start with a vision for the ‘perfect outfit’, and when I couldn’t find it in stores (or afford it), I would make it. A decade and a half later, I follow this same process when approaching each of our adaptive designs.
The vision for Abilitee as both a company and a cultural movement was born out of the growing realization that there are so many body-specific apparel needs, and yet, there is nothing out there that addresses every ‘pain point.’ In particular, existing options tend to be unattractive, expensive, or limited in function/scope. Our goal is to develop stylish, affordable clothing that meets a wide range of adaptive needs. And in order to do that successfully, we strongly believe it is necessary to bring users into the design process from the very beginning.
In this vein, each of our designs is directly inspired by an individual or group of people who have made their needs heard. We constantly receive messages from people requesting new products or providing feedback on products they have purchased, and take every suggestion seriously. We are humbled by the level of involvement we experience from the adaptive community, and are so grateful for the ideas and insights gleaned from these ongoing conversations.
We’re so excited to carry some of your amazing products at Aerie.com! What are some of your designs that you’re most proud of?
Marta Elena: I love our cheeky ostomy covers, specifically the ones that read “OH SHIT” and “HOT SHIT.” The first ostomy cover we created was inspired by one of Julie’s nurses, who underwent a colostomy surgery after being diagnosed with rectal cancer. After experiencing a number of accidental leaks (read: shit’s out of the bag), she began carrying two extra changes of clothes everywhere she went. And this was in addition to all the ostomy supplies she already had to carry around on a daily basis. Our water-resistant ostomy covers are designed to retain leaks, should they occur, so the wearer doesn’t have to worry about staining their clothing. The designs featuring those cute, catchy phrases above were my way of adding a level of humor and levity to a not-so-fun situation. When I hear that someone gave this item to their dad, who proceeded to laugh about his ostomy for the first time ever, I know that we’re doing something right.
Julie: Our feeding tube belt, which protects against irritation, infection, and accidental dislocation of the feeding tube. Accidental pull-outs, especially with young children, is an all-too-common occurrence. This requires that the patient be re-admitted to the hospital, costs the patient and healthcare system thousands of dollars, and increases the likelihood that the patient will develop some level of PTSD regarding the incident. Our belt gives parents and children an extra layer of security that allows them to live more fully: they can sleep, play, and participate in other daily activities without this underlying fear.
Can you share a favorite story (or 2!) of people you’ve impacted with your products?
Julie: A mom recently purchased a Baseball Tee for her 10 year old son who is battling leukemia.
Marta Elena: The review she left on our website was so meaningful that we passed it around the office and all shared a good cry. The tee was designed to provide patients undergoing chemo or IV therapy with a level of privacy and comfort that is otherwise difficult to maintain during treatment. To this day, patients with chest ports are required to undress or remain partially undressed for hours while they receive IV fluids. Many of these patients are already fighting the toughest battle of their lives, so this piece of clothing was designed with the intention to provide some sense of normalcy, control, and comfort to an otherwise overwhelming situation.
What’s next for your brand?
Marta Elena: Oh, we’re just getting started! The past few years have been exhilarating, inspiring, and incredibly rewarding. We have so much more to learn, and so many more problems to solve through this process of collaborative design. As of now, we have dozens of new adaptive designs in the works, and the list is constantly growing. Fortunately, our team is growing too, and we are excited to take some major steps forward in the coming year. For now, the collaboration with Aerie has been wind behind our sails. It’s a major win for the adaptive community, and we believe it provides an important example of what we should expect to see across the apparel industry someday soon. It’s 2020, but ableism and exclusion on the basis of medical need remains prevalent in many arenas. Our mission is to help shift the scales in the opposite direction; to address the unique needs of this diverse population as a means of elevating and empowering them to live their best lives.
Can you share a little about your journey with diabetes? How has it affected your life?
Brittany: I was diagnosed at the age of 4, so in a way, this has been my “normal.” I don’t remember much from before I was diagnosed. Thankfully, my parents recognized the symptoms within a week of them showing; my maternal uncle is also type 1 diabetic, so they were all too familiar with the symptoms that come along with it. From a young age, with the guidance of my parents, it has taught me to be responsible, while also not letting it hold me back. I’ve done anything and everything that I wanted to do and will continue to do so, with determination.
Do you use any of the Abilitee accessories? Which are your faves?
Brittany: I am so thankful that Aerie introduced me to this brand! My absolute favorite is the waistband. It has made everything from working out to wearing dresses SO much easier.
Is there anything you wish more people understood about diabetes?
Brittany: There are so many things! But I’ll narrow it down to these points:
- Diabetes is not caused by sugar. Type 1 diabetes, the one that I have, is an autoimmune disease. My immune system inadvertently attacked the cells in my pancreas that produce insulin, so my body does not produce insulin at all. Type 2 diabetes is when the body doesn’t effectively use the insulin that the body is producing (insulin resistance). Insulin resistance is not caused by sugar and there are many factors that come into play, including genetics.
- It is a constant balancing act. Food obviously affects blood sugar levels, but so does activity, colds, hormones. Some days, my blood sugar could be running higher or lower for no reason that I can figure out, and it can become very frustrating.
- This is a manageable disease, but it is also a serious one! I am continually thankful to have been born in a time where there are medicines and tools that make management possible and that I can live a full, fulfilling life. But that medicine is essential and it is not an exaggeration when we say we cannot live without it or not enough of it.
What makes you #AerieREAL?
Brittany: My determination, which my diabetes helped create. Also, rocking my insulin pump and CGM visibly! As well as not letting diabetes define or ever get in the way of my hopes and dreams.
Have you tried one of Abilitee’s amazing products? Comment below & tell us which are your faves!