Fashion and Functionality

Pamela Spadino, 50, and her son Chase, 15, of Highland Park, Illinois, love to rock out to music and listen to live bands. Their taste is classic rock…a little U2, Pearl Jam, with some indie bands mixed in. (Chase is also a huge fan of Mario Kart and Legend of Zelda tunes, from the Nintendo gaming series.)

Music often inspires fashion that’s edgy, hip, and cool. Think of the trends inspired by Michael Jackson and Madonna. And I hate to break it to you, but sweatpants aren’t rocker chic, for girls or guys.

For many people with disabilities or Down syndrome, sweatpants and pajama bottoms are a wardrobe staple. Neither fashionable nor stylish, they are worn only because they are easier to get on an off than traditional jeans and pants. Sometimes they are the only bottoms someone with a disability can wear.

For Pamela, sweatpants and pajama bottoms were not an option for Chase. Born with a grade 4 brain bleed which resulted in a cognitive disability, a seizure disorder and hemiplegia (a disabling condition on the right side of his body), Pamela wanted her son to dress the same as typically developing children.

An advocate for children with disabilities and an active volunteer for a Chicago children’s hospital, Pamela understands the dilemma. “There aren’t many choices out there for kids with disabilities. I’m a special needs parent. I get that fashion isn’t always the most important thing to the kids, and that the parents have a lot of other big things on their plates. Fashion isn’t their number one priority. But isn’t it important to have our kids with disabilities dress stylishly like everyone else?”

“Maybe the child doesn’t know the difference, or couldn’t care less, but the thought of making sure my son is dressed like other kids in his class, that is important to me.”

Pamela sent him to school in jeans that he couldn’t manage on his own, sacrificing his independence for style. While style may not have been important to Chase when he was younger, once he began high school, wearing jeans, the unofficial uniform of teens everywhere, became a huge priority for Chase.

Because, at Highland Park High School, Chase, a sophomore, is a celebrity of sorts. Everyone knows him. He’s popular with his peers and loved by his teachers. A documentary about Chase and his family, made by a student, won several awards, and has hundreds of views on YouTube. And as any fashionista will tell you, you can’t rock a red carpet, or even a high school corridor, in sweats or pajama bottoms. Not happening.

Designed for Dignity

So when Pamela discovered Downs Designs Dreams, a nonprofit in Mentor, Ohio that makes special clothing for people with Down syndrome or other physical disabilities, she literally felt as if she had won the fashion lottery.

“These jeans Downs Designs Dreams makes are life-changing!” Pamela raves. “They are so awesome because someone with a disability can wear them and feel proud. They have no buttons or zippers but they look cool…just like the jeans everyone else is wearing! Chase can pull them up and down by himself, something he has never been able to do before.”

“Wearing Karen’s jeans (Bowersox, the creator and Executive Director of DDD) gives people style and freedom and independence…things that so many of us take for granted, but that people and children with disabilities might have never known before.” Pamela continues, “These jeans, and the dress pants, give people style, dignity and independence.”

You can’t put a price tag on style, dignity and independence. And the amazing thing about Downs Designs Dreams is that through their Adopt-A-Jean® program, jeans are available, at no cost, for those who cannot afford them.

Karen Bowersox dreams that, “No more kids or adults with disabilities will feel out of place, uncomfortable or feel like they don’t fit in.  Downs Designs Dreams is providing quality, stylish clothing to enrich the lives of people with disabilities and help them live a more satisfying and happier life.”

Living the Dream

The dream is a reality for Chase and Pamela. Chase is more independent and confident, and he gets to look cool…very important in high school. Pamela has the pride and satisfaction of knowing that her son looks just like everyone else.

Having a child with multiple disabilities and chronic illness is something only mothers of children with special needs can truly understand. The support Pamela has from a group of seven other mothers who have children with special needs gives her strength for the road ahead.

Finding fashionable, functional clothes is no longer a worry for Pamela. She is free to focus on Chase, her son Wylie and husband Jarrod, and training Bowie, a Golden Retriever puppy to be a service dog for Chase.

Pamela and Chase, huge Neil Young fans, are both “rockin’ in the free world”. Especially Chase, looking incredibly stylish, and feeling comfortable and confident, in his Downs Designs Dreams jeans.