Wedding clothes for wheelchair users

Wheelchair Users Benefit from this Revolutionary Fashion Design

Leather jacket with back cut away, for wheelchair user

Stylish women’s leather jacket by Izzy Camilleri (Photo by Phyl Good)

“I realized that all my clients are seated…The clothes differ in dressing and ease of dressing.”

As this thought came to fashion designer Izzy Camilleri, like a light bulb going on, or perhaps a thunderbolt, a whole new world opened up, both for her as a designer and for her potential new clients—people in wheelchairs. For twenty years, until 2009, when Ms. Camilleri launched her first fashion line for wheelchair users, she had been well-known for her exciting collections in the mainstream fashion industry as well as film and television. But a commission from Barbara Turnbull, Toronto Star reporter and quadriplegic, changed Camilleri’s life. And, one can argue, the lives of a world full of wheelchair users.

When you peruse the offerings on the website of Camilleri’s company, IZ Adaptive, you don’t see the over-the-top drama of her designs inspired by Bladerunner, the spectacular fur worn by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, or even Camilleri’s signature body-fitting black leather and fur. But every item of clothing available through this online store is stylish, well-fitting, and often beautiful in an elegant, understated way. These clothes have had an effect in people’s lives that is dramatic in its own way, not to mention enduring and life-altering. As one of Camilleri’s clients, a quadriplegic from a mountain biking accident, told her, “Your clothes are really liberating.”

Stylish, yes. Fashionable, yes. But liberating? Don’t wheelchair users wear the same sorts of clothing everyone else does? The answer is yes – but no. As Camilleri discovered at the beginning of her journey, speaking to a small focus group of wheelchair users, the chair and the type of injury affect everything from the types of clothing users can even wear, to the sizing and even to where seams or pockets should go. If a person sits unmoving for hours at a time, for example, pressure sores become a problem. Add a pocket seam that exerts extra pressure, and the problem becomes quite serious.

That’s just the start. Think of the last time you wrestled backwards to get your second arm into a shirt or jacket after the first arm went in just fine. While this move might be possible (with some difficulty) for a paraplegic, who is only paralyzed from the waist down, it is likely impossible for a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, even with a trained helper. A wheelchair user may thus find him or herself wearing clothes two or three sizes too big, just to be able to get into them. And then, confined to the chair’s small space, that extra material bunches up and might make the person appear, in Camilleri’s words, “a sloppy mess.”

Men's slacks and shirt for wheelchair user

Men’s slacks and shirt (Photo by Phyl Good)

Who wants to go to a job interview that way? Or even just roll down a sidewalk?

At first, that small focus group (two quadriplegic women, one paraplegic woman, and one woman with MS) described so many different clothing issues that Camilleri was almost overwhelmed with the detail. But as she continued researching and peeling away these layers of confusion, it was that thought – “all my clients are seated” – that provided the final key. Recognize that the clients are seated, then recognize the differences in their abilities as they sit in their chairs, and ask, “What does that mean to the patterns?”

The first thing it means is that the distribution of material in the garments must shift. For a seated person to look the same in a pair of dress pants as a standing person does, with the same clean lines, the “pitch” of the pants must be different. There is less material at the front to bunch up, but there is more at the back to accommodate the curve of the hips and upper thighs. A shirt for a paraplegic may need slightly wider sleeves and shoulders than one for a quadriplegic, to accomplish the same look. Why? Because the back, shoulders, and arms of someone who constantly moves the wheels of a chair can be “pretty buff,” as Camilleri says, while someone in a power chair will not build those muscles the same way.

Power chairs require other clothing changes. Getting a jacket, blazer, or coat on and off can be difficult with all the material that normally goes behind the back and legs. Quadriplegics often wear jackets instead of coats, because it’s impossible to get extra material from coats properly tucked under, meaning that they are often underdressed for bad weather. That’s unhealthy and can leave them cold for hours. The solution? An ingenious design in which outerwear or blazers have most of the back cut out, with front and back fastenings that allow the garments simply to slide off the arms (or be put on by the arms) in two pieces. This design adds another element of convenience: even someone untrained can help the person remove their coat or blazer, without the shifting of the person’s body that would need to be done by a trained helper with a regular coat.

Camilleri has had to be a trailblazer; while mainstream fashion design always follows a certain trajectory, she has had to create the path for wheelchair fashion virtually from scratch, from researching the scattered demographic to designing the clothing to learning how to inform wheelchair users about this new opportunity. It’s hard to succeed with wheelchair fashion, as many failed competitors can attest. IZ Adaptive almost has the market to itself; only Rolli-Moden in Germany is similarly successful, and its offerings are somewhat different. Yet it has taken from 2009 until late 2014 for Camilleri to finally think about doing this work full-time without needing to supplement it with other design work.

Wedding clothes for wheelchair users

Wedding clothes (Photo by Phyl Good)

The IZ Adaptive website and Facebook page are full of testimonials from people in wheelchairs, who are for the first time wearing clothing that both fits and looks good. Providing great clothes for them was an idea that was long overdue. Wheelchair users the world over are now reaping the benefit of the hard work, dedication, and expertise in style that Izzy Camilleri is putting into what is a revolutionary and welcome design idea.

[This article originally appeared in the now-defunct online Zen Dixie magazine, December 2014]

[Photos taken at the late 2014 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit of Izzy Camilleri’s designs, entitled, “Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting.”]


Word on the Street: Readers in a Candy Store

Forget the kid in the candy store. Any Toronto book lover will tell you that the Word on the Street book festival is much more exciting than that. And infinitely more tasty.

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

This annual festival, held recently again not just at Queen’s Park in Toronto but in several major cities across Canada, might start with books,  but it then extends well beyond them. In fact, this event might be better described as a readers’ and writers’ festival, instead of narrowing it down only to books. Where else can you find one speakers’ tent devoted to e-readers and other digital ways of reading, another tent for magazine publishing, another for readings by the authors of recent best-selling books, and another whole tent completely devoted to cookbooks?

In one tent, people gathered to hear history authors read from and talk about both their writing process and the actual historical events they wrote about. In another, hopeful writers learned some of the manuscript submission process from publishers and agents. Some even had pages of their work critiqued on the spot by published writers and writing professors.

Word on the Street - booths everywhere!

Booths everywhere!

Beyond all the speakers’ tents, the streets on either side of the park were lined with information booths, populated by representatives from publishers and writers’ clubs, bookstores and magazines, and published authors promoting their books. Whatever aspect of writing or reading you were interested in, you could find it there.

I’ve attended several of these September festivals, usually looking at things from an author’s point of view. It’s been interesting to see the digital world gradually infiltrate and begin augmenting the physical. Three or four years ago, the farthest it went was the panel discussions about the great things that could be done by blogging as either a pastime or an occupation. This year, the panel about e-readers was conducted twice. And both agents and published authors talked at great length about how to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote your writing and build a fan base, even before you submit your manuscript anywhere.

Yet judging by the interests of the crowds and the brisk business being done at the booths of the bookstores, the physical paper book is no less alive and vigorous, even if digital books are also becoming popular. And despite complaints by many social analysts that the skill of solid reading is being used less and less in society, that doesn’t appear to be true in Toronto. You may get some clues from hearing about the frequent author readings throughout the city each year, not to mention the International Festival of Authors held each October.

But the best evidence you’ll get, of how Torontonians love their books, is to visit the Word on the Street festival in the autumn. And slowly work your way through the crowds and the immense feast of reading and writing laid out before you.

Four panelists at the "Look at Me! Look at Me!" Social Media panel

Nina Lassam, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Anita Windisman, Julie Wilson


Toronto Music Garden: a place of Enchantment


"Gigue" - Folia Ensemble

I went for the baroque music, and found something even more enchanting.

The Toronto Music Garden, created in 1999 by famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, is the site of the annual Summer Music in the Garden series each week at the Harbourfront Centre. It provides a beautiful setting, with the featured performers playing under the green trailing branches of a tall tree, with spectators sitting on tiers of grass forming an amphitheatre above, surrounded by a rich garden of wild flowers, tall grasses, and lush bushes and trees.

Sunday’s performers were FOLIA, a trio of musicians playing authentic baroque instruments: Linda Melsted on the violin, Kiri Tollaksen on cornetto, and Borys Medicky on the virginals (a small version of a harpsichord). We were treated to a program called “Utopian Voices,” a pleasant concert under the warm sun of a summer Sunday afternoon. Free concerts like this, for me, are one of the best things about living in Toronto.

Fifth Movement - Menuette


But as I strolled along a nearby path after the concert ended, I discovered another “best thing.” I came upon a small sign that said, “5 – Menuette,” and which described the gardens and the metal circular pavilion before which it stood, in the area above and behind the amphitheatre.  I thought to myself, “If there’s a number 5, where are numbers 1 through 4?” And I set out to discover them.

I found myself following a series of labyrinthine pathways leading from an entrance point (1 – Prelude) past other musical movements: 2 – Allemande, 3 – Courante, and so on, a series of musical concepts that made me think of something like the Stations of the Cross. The paths ducked into secret groves under the trees, led the way past benches sitting in serene shadow, or circled around groupings of boulders in the midst of enclosures bounded by fir trees or grasses.



One path circled around and around among tall grasses and meadow wildflowers planted to attract butterflies and birds (I saw two butterflies that looked an awful lot like Monarchs), finally coming into the open where the sculpture of a maypole loomed overhead. Another path of rough flagstones circled into what was called a “poet’s corner,” surrounded by a wall of evergreens. A large stone at its centre held a still pool of water, and in the enclosure stood a man playing a flute.

The haunting music followed me as I worked my way back out and along the rest of the paths. In the end, I found six signs: or rather, six movements(**), as the Music Garden was designed to interpret J.S. Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. The idea was first broached to the city of Boston, which never followed through, and that city’s loss has been Toronto’s gain. The Music Garden rolls gently over three hills, the paths rising and falling even as they spiral and weave.

This is truly an enchanted garden, music expressed in nature, nature embodying music. I can’t believe I didn’t even know it was there until yesterday. But you can be sure that I will be revisiting the magical, musical place as often as I can.




(** The movements are: 1-Prelude, 2-Allemande, 3-Courante, 4-Sarabande, 5-Menuette, and 6-Gigue)

Doors Open Toronto and Toronto Transit

Subway cars getting an overhaul

Up on stilts

If there’s one thing that stands out about employees at the Toronto Transit Commission’s heavy repair facility at the Greenwood Shop, it’s that they all love their jobs. I don’t mean “job satisfaction” or contentment or anything like that. We’re talking love, here.

This weekend is the tenth anniversary of Doors Open Toronto, in which significant buildings all over the city open doors to the public that are usually shut. And all the tours are free. I go every year, and usually I favour old, historic buildings, rather than something newer.

But when it comes to the TTC, I make an avid exception. Last year I missed the tour of the Lower Bay Street subway station that’s been closed for decades, so the Greenwood Shop was at the top of my list today.

It seems to be at the top of the list of the people who work there, too. It didn’t matter which shop you walked through — Vehicle Overhaul/Body Repair, Electrical and Electronic Repair, Truck/Axle/Gearbox/Rewheeling — everyone standing by to explain their section to onlookers was enthusiastic and interesting, knew their stuff — and loved being there. That was a universal theme with anyone I talked to, whether the Axle/Rewheeling guy who had been on the job for almost 29 years, or the young man in Pneumatic Repair who had been there only three.

Bright and shiny!


They do a darn good job, and are justly proud. The Pneumatic guy explained the mechanism by which the air pumps work, to power the doors in streetcars or release the brakes in subway cars. Farther along the line, another man showed off his bright, shiny new paint job on a 15-year old car.

In another section, the Axle/Rewheeling guy spoke at considerable length about how they balance the wheels on those huge things. Did you know that there are something like 26 motors on a 6-car train, all of them controlling the wheels? And that, while those are great for pulling a train up a steep grade, there’s little you can do to reduce all that power when the train is flat and you really don’t need them all going at once? We learned what the millwrights do, and how there’s a “flat wheel monitor” that watches each train passing between Eglinton and Lawrence stations, producing graphs that let supervisors know if any of the cars need to get their wheels worked on.

We saw gearboxes and trucks and snow throwers and air pumps and couplers and breakers and nuts and bolts — it almost made you dizzy, this proliferation of mechanical and electronic gear! And right in the middle of it all, several men ran a gorgeous train set that featured miniature models of TTC streetcars from several eras. It was charming, and I coveted it mightily.

Touchy equipment!

Touchy equipment!

Rows of yellow “Caution” tape guided us from shop to shop, while keeping us at a safe distance from all the equipment. But there were pieces of that equipment all along the other side of the tape, clearly labelled, with people to answer any questions we had. All the staff were friendly and helpful, and seemed just as pleased as punch to tell us about all the cool things they did. And all of us spectators were just as pleased to be there; I didn’t see one person who appeared bored.

Really, you just couldn’t be, in the midst of that dazzling display of craftsmanship and skill.

Considering that this was the first time the Greenwood Shop had done a Doors Open tour, it was a well-planned, very detailed, frankly spectacular success. If these people are even half as thorough and competent when they work on subway trains and streetcars, Torontonians have the safest system on the planet.

(For more photos, visit my Doors Open Toronto 2009 set at Flickr.)

Subway cars getting an overhaul

Four mayors, little politics: no, this was not a dream

Shape of Suburbs cover

Four city mayors in the same room, with no politicking??

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I may be exaggerating a bit: there were really only two mayors, one deputy mayor, and one former. And almost all they did was talk politics, but not in the usual “gotcha” sense. For a change, this was a genuine conversation, with very little sense that they were saying what they had to say just to get re-elected.

The occasion was the recent launch of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell’s new book, The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl, at another of Pages Books & Magazines’ This is Not a Reading Series events at the Gladstone Hotel. And in honour of the book, Sewell took part in a panel discussion with Mayors Rob Burton of Oakville and Steve Parish of Ajax, and Deputy Mayor Jack Heath of Markham, moderated by architect and urban designer Kim Story.

The evening provided an unusual chance to hear people at the top level of municipal government talking frankly about subjects like how to plan for water and sewage, how to manage population intensification, and what in the world to do about traffic. You felt less like you were listening to politicians and more like you were watching several intelligent people work away at some significant planning problems.

I swear I’ve never heard so much honest and thoughtful discussion from politicians in my entire life. These guys really think about these things. In fact, they worry about them. A lot.

And they were surprisingly critical of politicians doing things that we non-politicos think of as sheer manipulation for political gain. For example, Steve Parish spoke of the almost “incestuous” relationship between developers and politicians, which absolutely must be done away with. Rob Burton considers the urbanization of rural land to be a gigantic wealth-creation device. How do we discover who is behind these schemes? Burton says we merely need to ask, “Who got rich?” All the developers’ promises of low costs never produce cheaper houses; they just increase the profit margin for the developers.

Tough words from guys who we lay people tend to think of as being in bed with developers. Maybe we just didn’t have the “right” mayors in attendance that night.

Or maybe a shift is starting, as conscientious people take office and get a good look at what’s really been going on in these cities, with all the implications for a looming future. That became more and more evident, at least, when they got onto the subject of traffic and transit. In fact, everything kept coming back to that. With transit and roads all over Toronto and the satellite cities already stretched to full capacity, these mayors have to devise ways of increasing transit to prepare for the even greater population boom that’s now developing. It’s a subject constantly on their minds; everyone in the crowd could see that.

In the collegial and entertaining atmosphere, the only time any panelist got touchy was when some topics from Sewell’s book seemed too Toronto-centric. As Jack Heath reminded everyone, all 20 municipalities around the city are “also Torontonians.” Parish maintained that the real goal is to make a harmonious “Toronto region.” And in response to Sewell’s theory that the extra density in Toronto helps make people more courteous as people learn to live closely together, Burton remarked, “If density made you polite, nobody would ever complain about how they were treated in Paris.”

A panel discussion about sewage, population, and traffic — one of the best book-related evenings I’ve ever had? Yes, believe it or not. And do I want to read John Sewell’s book as a result? Certainly I do.

But even more, I’d like to spend another evening talking city planning with these guys.

The real “Reason for the Season”

Scotia Plaza elegance

Scotia Plaza elegance

Don’t believe the critics who go on about the crass commercialism of Christmas.

And don’t believe the religious people, either, who fervently tell you that their brand of religion is “the reason for the season.”

Oh yes, all of that is wrapped up in Christmas (pun intended), there’s no doubt. But what’s really important – the real reason for the season – is the same as it’s been in the Northern Hemisphere almost since the beginning of human history.

It’s a dark, gloomy time of year, and we need the light. It’s no coincidence that virtually all northern festivals connected to the winter solstice, religious or cultural, involve lots of twinkling lights. The religions may change, and marketeers may overlay everything with commercialism, but the underlying reason for our traditions is constant, and simple: light.

So I went downtown a few days ago, looking for it. And found it everywhere, because if there’s one thing those corporations can afford, it’s to make their building decorations pretty elaborate. That’s what I’d been counting on.



Case in point. My favourite place in recent years has been 145 King Street West, here in Toronto. They decorate their lobby and the entire underground complex beneath it with one of the most creative designs I’ve seen anywhere. They take an entire string of round red lights and clump them together so they look like a cluster of red berries. These clusters nestle all through their trees, garlands, and wreaths. They use LED lights, so the energy usage probably isn’t bad, and the result is a lot of quite beautiful decorations and a gazillion lights. Very happy-making.

Honkin' hyuge Christmas balls!

Honkin' hyuge Christmas balls!

Meanwhile, the Exchange Tower replicates the type of balls that hang on Christmas trees – except that they’re huge. The Tower has a very high lobby ceiling on the main floor, over a wide opening overlooking the concourse below, and the huge blue and silver balls hang in that space. It’s fun to look straight up from down there, but even from the main floor, those decorations are glittery and delicate.

Christmas solar system

Christmas solar system

First Canadian Place has a similar open floor arrangement in a wider space. They decided this year on a bright, sparkly, sort of metallic Christmas ball/solar system look.

Scotia Plaza, always going for the elegance, went entirely with white decorations and lights on dark trees. And they added another festive element, the day I was downtown: a free noon-hour concert by the Barra MacNeils!  Scotiabank is the sponsor of the family Celtic singing group’s Christmas tour. The group was to appear at the Danforth Music Hall that evening. But we visitors were treated to a great sneak peek that filled all the listeners with cheer and seasonal spirit.

Because that’s another age-old element of the solstice time. All through history, people have gathered together at this time of year for feasting and singing, probably induced by the need to find a defence against the potential loneliness and the literal darkness of the season. We didn’t have the feast, but we sure had the singing. And the clapping and foot-stomping in the audience, with a brief treat of line dancing on the stage to polish things off. And Lucy, the lone female member of the group, gave us goosebumps of bliss as she perfectly hit the extremely high note in the chorus of ‘O Holy Night.’ That song alone was worth the entire trip downtown.

Barra MacNeils

Barra MacNeils

So I got exactly what I needed that day: the coming-together with other people for some solstice companionship, and the brightness – the downright prettiness – of the lights in all the buildings.

If you ignore everyone else’s motives for the season – both the commercialism and the religious clamour – the companionship and the light still serve the purpose they have served for thousands of years. They push back against the darkest time of year, and help keep the human spirit burning brightly, as the twinkling lights signify the rebirth of the sun, that even now begins to turn back toward us with its promise of summer brilliance in just a few months.

Here in Toronto, we’ve been eating for a long time

It’s just this habit we’ve got: eating. We can’t seem to do without it; it’s as much of a tradition in Toronto as, I don’t know, breathing and sleeping. So why would someone go so far as to make a whole exhibit about its history? Wasn’t food in Toronto kind of boring until the whole multicultural thing began, 30-40 years ago?

Waste Not –  Want Not. Canada Food Board, 1918, Photo Courtesy of Toronto Public Library (TRL)

Waste Not – Want Not. Canada Food Board, 1918, Photo Courtesy of Toronto Public Library (TRL)

By no means. In many ways, the food culture in the city was as complex and varied as it is today. Look at a seed list from a local paper in 1884, and count the varieties of vegetables listed there. Do we have eleven different kinds of onions available at the supermarket now? Ten kinds of beans? Fourteen different kinds of corn? In many things, we have far less variety now.

It was The Culinary Trust that helped inspire an exhibit currently being held at the Toronto Reference Library: “Local Flavour: Eating in Toronto, 1830-1955.” One of this organization’s programs is “Endangered Treasures,” through which it offers grants to libraries to preserve and restore historic cookbooks of their collections.

It gave one of these grants to the Reference Library for just such a purpose. The curators of this new exhibit (which runs until January 11, 2009) went on to combine the restoration work on several cookbooks with the loan of paintings and photographic images from the City of Toronto’s Art Collection and Archives, and from Library and Archives Canada, as well as historical kitchen artifacts from the City’s Museum and Heritage Services. When all this material is put together, it means there’s a lot of fascinating history in a relatively small space.

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