CCA student works to create stylish clothing for people in wheelchairs

Mary Kiehl is participating in a two-week fashion design summer program at Drexel University.

CCA senior Mary Kiehl, 18, is tired of being forced to buy ill-fitting clothes with little fashion flair just to accommodate a physical disability. So she is taking a crack at learning how to design stylish clothing – especially for people who, like her, are in a wheelchair.

“I want to accommodate a disability but still be stylish in my designs,” said Mary, who has congenital muscular dystrophy. “I’m very limited in what I can buy. My proportions are different because of my disability.”

For instance, Mary noted that someone sitting in a wheelchair needs the back of their pants, skirts and shirts to be longer than in the front, but the only way to accomplish that is to buy much-bigger clothing and alter it.

 Living in a family with generations of seamstresses helps, but Mary wants to put her list of 28 fashion ideas to the test. Her first step was being accepted into a two-week fashion design summer program at Drexel University, which runs July 9-21.

Billed as a way to explore fashion design hands-on and start building a portfolio, the program includes one-on-one lessons in the design studio for just 16 students, technology instruction, lectures from industry professionals and field trips to boutiques, studios and museums.

Mary, who lives in Susquehanna Township, hopes to leave the summer program with 15 brand-new friendships, a good understanding of what it’s like to live on a college campus, a “better understanding of whether I want to go into fashion design and knowing exactly what I need to improve.”

She’s also busy checking out other careers that match her skills and interests – “makeup, hair and nails,” she said with a laugh – through shadowing opportunities with the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. “I am figuring out what I could do that I could have fun with but also be able to turn into a career,” she said.

 Her mom, Libby, is cognizant of the additional steps that will need to be addressed at Drexel and nearly anywhere Mary may choose to continue her schooling, as Mary needs an aide to help with her physical needs.

 “Schools are good about providing technology and accommodations,” Libby said, but the aide is generally an individual’s responsibility.

 Mary and her parents, though, have proven they are adept at determining what will work best for Mary and ensuring it happens. For instance, they discovered that attending a brick-and-mortar public school was a time-consuming venture for Mary. “We spent so much time just getting ready to get on the school bus and she had to do her homework all night,” Libby said. “Now I see a bus drive by and I think, ‘Thank you.’ ”

 Libby home-schooled to catch Mary up to where she should be and then enrolled her in CCA “to prepare her for college.”

 “CCA has been a really good change,” Libby said. “It’s made her more responsible with time management. The teachers and staff are so supportive. In fact, she has closer relationships with teachers now than when she physically attended classes.”

 The thing Libby appreciated the most is the initial anonymity afforded to online students.

 “In public, people see Mary and make judgments. Here, they hear Mary and learn she’s fun. They all love her,” she said. “After awhile they meet her and say, ‘Oh, you’re in a wheelchair.’”

 Mary chimed in to note she has made nine best friends who dubbed themselves the “Cheetah Sisters.”

 “We pretend we are sisters, but we all have different backgrounds,” Mary explained. “You get to know the person first with CCA.”


Commonwealth Charter Academy


July 19, 2017


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