If you are an able-bodied person there’s a good chance that getting dressed in the morning — buttoning shirts and zipping pants— aren’t things you have to think about. But for people with different abilities, these acts of connecting clothing can be, at best, time consuming and at worst, impossible to manage. Equability is looking to change that. The company is led by Hilary Pham, a data analyst who wanted to make a more meaningful impact with her work. After graduating with her masters from the University of Illinois in 2021 and working in finance, she started Eqability with her business partner and longtime friend, Myia Esper. Esper is the Chief Design and Operations Officer, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been instrumental in creating their processes. The work that these two women are doing is inspiring and is already making a big impact in the lives of people in Champaign-Urbana, and beyond.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: Where did the idea for Equability come from?
Hilary Pham: In January 2020, I traveled to Brazil to complete my business plan for my undergrad minor program. The first few days were spent traveling to hospitals, training facilities, and local nonprofits to talk to people with disabilities. In one conversation, Cleuton Nunes, a paralympic wheelchair rugby player, casually mentioned how he couldn’t wear a t-shirt and jeans after his accident. It used to be his favorite outfit and the idea of clothing as a limitation stuck with me. Equability was created a few days later and I decided to continue [to pursue the business] on my own. It’s funny, I never thought I’d have my own business so seeing this idea grow from a brainstorming session to an operation has been so fulfilling.
SP: Can you talk about the process of adapting clothes?
Pham: The biggest issues I’ve found while exploring adaptive clothing was the lack of access and options. There are so many features of clothes that are difficult for people with dexterity issues; buttons, zippers, tiny hooks, ties, and other little annoying things. My goal was to give people a way to wear what they want, no matter their abilities. We focus on the functional features of clothes but we don’t change the design or size at all. Right now, you can send us a button down shirt or jeans and we’ll use materials like magnets, Velcro, and snap buttons to make them easier to wear. Myia figured out a way to make these changes while hiding the stitches in the existing seams. Our goal is for the clothes to look the same as what you could buy from a store but adapted to meet that person’s needs.
SP: How has this work changed the way you think about clothes?
Pham: This whole journey has opened my eyes to how impactful clothes can be on self-esteem and self-expression. Being unable to independently dress yourself and relying on other people can really take a toll on self-confidence. The limitations of shopping from existing adaptive clothes, which are generally expensive, made of sweatpant or stretchy materials, and geared towards older audiences, also creates a lack of options. If you’re someone who wants to buy trendy or vintage styles, it’s hard to find clothes that are fashionable and adaptive. I’ve always loved clothes but now I understand how they can help people feel independent and empowered every day.
SP: Do you have a favorite item that you have adapted?
Pham: The very first item I “adapted” was a borrowed button down shirt in Brazil. I bought magnets from a local craft store and used clear packaging tape and paper clips to show how it would function. That prototype ended up becoming our magnetic shirt. I still keep that stack of magnets and clips on my desk to remind myself how far Equability has come.
SP: What is the biggest misconception people might have about the work you do?
Pham: That our work doesn’t matter and our service aren’t needed. What has helped this misconception is the growing attention to this issue. In the last few years, Tommy Hilfiger, Target, and JC Penny have released adaptive clothing collections. The University of Missouri published two studies that link a lack of clothes to social and professional barriers for people with disabilities. It’s hard to convince people this problem exists so I’m excited to see the growing awareness.
SP: Can you talk a little bit about the process to find the clothes you adapt?
Pham: People can either send us their own clothes or shop from our pre-adapted inventory. Myia and I are well aware of the waste within the fashion industry, whether from textiles or the manufacturing process. To support a more circular fashion cycle, we’ve sourced clothes from thrift stores and donations from family and friends. Our goal is to find clothes made from durable materials and upcycle them to make them more accessible.
SP: What makes an item a good contender for adaptability?
Pham: Since we’re trying to make the clothes look as unaltered as possible, we recommend items made from thicker materials like cotton. They can better support the weight of magnets or velcro and unlike silk or thin polyester which is easily weighed down. If there are clothes you want to adapt in ways that we don’t currently offer, we are more than happy to review pictures of clothes and adapt custom orders as well.
SP: What is your favorite thing about the work you do?
Pham: Seeing the direct impact of our adaptations. There are so many people that I’ve met who can’t wear their favorite clothes or avoid professional wear because of their abilities. It’s been so fulfilling to see people light up when they realize that they can wear clothes that aren’t just functional, but fashionable too.
SP: What is challenging about the work you do?
Pham: In line with our mission, we’ve had to adapt and learn as we go. Equability has some overlap with Myia’s background in fashion but it’s a completely new industry for me. We’ve both had to fill so many roles from registering the business, designing our website and brand elements, and creating marketing campaigns just to name a few. It’s exciting and terrifying to constantly be on our toes but we’ve grown alongside the company and I’m looking forward to what comes up next.
SP: How can people support this amazing organization?
Pham: If anyone reading this has experience struggling with clothes or caring for someone who does, let us know what we should adapt next. We’re listening and want to grow our services.
SP: Anything else you want to add?
Pham: Our mission is simple: change clothes, so people don’t have to. We adapt clothes so no one has to change their lifestyle or clothing style because of their abilities. If this resonates with you, we’re actively looking for people to join us. Feel free to reach out, we’d love to add your skills to the team.