My grandson Caleb had a very difficult start to life, which included seizures.
Last year when he turned three, his mum Zoe and I started looking for clothes to accommodate his feeding tube and nappies. Until then, we’d been able to buy clothes from the high street stores and supermarkets here in England.
To my dismay, after looking in stores and online, I found nothing available for his age and size. I tried parenting websites for advice, but soon realized that we could only buy them from specialty catalogues.
Parents and carers told me they had to buy from the United States, as even with postage it still worked out cheaper than buying from the local catalogues. Others were using expensive dressmakers to alter their children’s popper vests and sleeping suits by adding material so that they would still fit.
Disability catalogues charge more because their products are specially made. The cost of a popper or snap vest was about $30 in the catalogue, compared with the $2 vests (up to size 3) we could buy in our regular stores.
How would my family afford this new clothing? Caleb’s mum had given up work to care for him. And the family had to pay for private physiotherapy for Caleb, who is still not able to crawl, sit, stand, walk or even have full control of his head. The cost of this new clothing was a huge worry.
Why couldn’t the less expensive clothing, now available up to size 3, be made a little bit bigger, with extra material?
I decided to campaign for more affordable clothing in larger sizes and asked Marks and Spencer if they would help. I chose them because they're a global company and that meant more children and families would benefit. They have dedicated websites in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and they deliver free when you spend $50. They also deliver to over 30 countries at varying cost. Marks and Spencer have a great reputation for quality and are a respected company that started out in Leeds, which is my home town. I thought if they were able to order them by the thousand, then surely they would be priced lower.
I wrote to their customer services’ team, and they promised to pass my e-mail onto their buyers. They quickly came back to me and said that they were interested in my proposal and were hopeful they could help.
Soon they were sending sample suits for Caleb to try. My daughter-in-law Zoe has been able to give very positive feedback and has made suggestions about how the clothing can be tweaked. For example, the neck area was a little too large in one item, so they made the opening smaller.
Zoe asked if they could also do styles for older children and Marks and Spencer got in touch with the disability charity Scope UK for advice from families. Scope arranged for parents from their online community to trial sample sizes with their children and send in feedback too, which has all helped to shape the products.
The new range of clothing, launched in February, is more than I ever hoped for!
Initially I just asked for popper vests for older children. Marks and Spencer have gone above and beyond by also making sleeping suits, long and short sleeve items, all-in-ones, and all with easy accessibility for nappy changing and tube feeding. Two of the items have snaps across the tummy for a feeding tube. They are made for children aged 3 to 8 at the moment, with the age range being extended to 16 later this year.
The older children’s styles will be age-appropriate. The clothing is great quality and affordable, and ranges in price from $8 to $15.
I have to admit that a month or two after contacting Marks and Spencer, I had a little wobble and thought, “What if other families don’t feel the need for these clothes?” I asked the company if I could tell people on my Facebook page about what was happening and they said yes.
In a few days I had over 30,000 responses! There were friend requests from strangers and messages from around the world, including India, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Indonesia and Ireland. All wonderful messages of encouragement that made me realize I had done the right thing, and that thousands of children and their carers would benefit.
People also shared ideas of their own, and it convinced me that we should be pushing ideas to other businesses. After all, if we don’t let them know what’s needed, then how are they going to help?
I decided to set up a new facebook Group entitled Marks and Spencer and Me: Special Needs Clothing so that everyone could put forward their thoughts. We have over 6,000 members and are still growing. Anyone wishing to be kept updated please join. The retailer is in the process of producing more age-appropriate garments for youth up to age 16 and are making some improvements to the existing line.
We're hopeful that this much more affordable clothing for Caleb will be a weight off his parents’ minds, and will help them continue with the private physiotherapy he so needs. Caleb has profound and complex needs. I know lots of families will have their own individual expenses to accommodate their children’s needs. So this should also help them too.
The attention to detail and quality of clothing is what Marks and Spencer do best. This new adapted line has been so popular that many items have sold out, but they’re being restocked quickly. The demand has been unprecedented, which is heart-warming for me.
Thank you Marks and Spencer, for making this happen.