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Why accessible design needs a better reputation

Last week I attended a Perspectives Accessibility Workshop with Sightsavers. The half-day workshop was aimed at inspiring creatives to consider the broader audience within their design process. I studied design at university and execute a lot of our creative work at The Unmistakables, so this was a great opportunity to see how these areas could overlap. After all, as a consultancy made up of minorities our job is to consider those who others miss out!

During the workshop Dr Nadine Chahine - type designer from ArabicType - discussed the factors affecting legibility of type. She explained that legibility is relative i.e. dependant on a variety of conditions. I took this to also mean accessibility is relative, because the accessibility of every product/interface/experience changes with every person that interacts with it. This is just one issue brands and designers face.

In my first post I talked about the need for the marketing and advertising industries to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Now I wonder, what about the products themselves? What, on the market, is inclusive through design, and how do consumers feel about it?

How bad was the M&S cauliflower steak actually?

You might remember back in January last year when Marks & Spencers’ famous ‘Cauliflower Steak’ was removed from shelves after a backlash involving equal doses of mockery and ‘wtf’. See exhibit A below.

People all over the country expressed anger over the mere existence of the product, not to mention the excessive plastic packaging. Gardening blogger, Mark Willis, told the BBC "this is a story about convenience food gone mad… people don't realise how easy it is to cook your own food." Although this is a valid point for many of us, it fails to consider those with dexterity challenges and disabilities affecting their motor skills. Really, people don’t realise how difficult it can be to cook your own food!

When we think about accessible design, the shape and portioning of our vegetables isn’t the first thing that comes to mind - it just shows us how far it stretches. Things which are criticised by the mainstream can actually offer independence for others. But most brands don’t focus on ‘other’.

Ok, the cauliflower steak was probably not marketed for a disabled consumer. I’m sure if it was, the offence risk would be enough to prevent people expressing their rage so comfortably.

Are we mocking less able people?

Beyond the dividing slice of cauliflower, there is a myriad of other products (some edible, some not) which many consider useless and expendable before they even reach the shopping basket. In fact, they’re considered so unnecessary that we just can’t stop talking about it! For example, Huffington Post shares 18 Kitchen Gadgets That Question The Intelligence Of Human Beings. Many of the gadgets make chopping certain vegetables easier. Among them, an avocado slicer, pickle picker and an object which holds a tomato in place so it can be sliced with one hand (see below).

As someone who values their independence, loves to cook, and has the advantage of two adequately dexterous hands, I can only imagine the frustration I would feel if I was unable to perform an ordinary task such as slicing a tomato. With that in mind, if it meant I could prepare myself a salad without asking for help, I would totally invest in this contraption. After all, I would hate the judgment of being the person buying a pre-sliced vegetable, not to mention the premium price and excess packaging! I’m looking at you, cauliflower steak...

The reality is that a lot of people don’t have to imagine this scenario, because problems like this are real. What doesn’t help are ‘light’ articles such as Huffington Post’s which not only mock the tools themselves, but also the people who use them. If you love avocado but struggle with dexterity (I’m not talking about ‘avocado hand’), why should you feel stupid for owning a extra tool which makes it easier?! Living with a physical disability can have enough challenges without feeling like your intelligence is being questioned.

As with the cauliflower steak, I am fairly confident that the tomato slicing gadget is not marketed for a disabled consumer. However, even if it was, would people really want their disabilities highlighted in this way? Many disabilities prevent people from fully integrating into society, and while simple products can aid this, the feeling that you’re using a ‘disabled only’ product could just add to this feeling of ‘other’. Brands will face criticism for creating seemingly ‘lazy’ products, but the alternative is to target one group of people and therefore alienate another.

It’s brighter outside the kitchen

How do you market an everyday product to a disabled consumer, without alienating them from the rest of the market? The good news is that it is possible for brands to be inclusive, accessible and appealing to a range of consumers.

The Soap Co. is an ‘ethical luxury brand’ of soap and skincare based in East London and the Lake District. The products are handmade by people in the UK who are visually impaired, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged. While the social enterprise provides employment opportunities for the blind, they have also won numerous awards for the accessible and sustainable design of their products. This is a brand which has accessibility running through its core and into its beautifully designed bottles. Bravo.

Then, there are the companies using technology to aid accessibility. Developed in Ireland, WaytoB is a smartphone and smartwatch app designed to help people with learning disabilities navigate their environment more independently. The app takes the confusion and stress away from navigating a new area (which we have all felt, let’s face it) and allows a partner (which could be a parent or carer etc) to track and edit the journey along the way. This is an example of a product helping to solve a problem which major developers, such as Google, are unlikely to prioritise.

There is no doubt that accessible design, for specific disabilities and situations, can change lives. The world needs these hyper-targeted products because ultimately, abilities are all different and one size will never fit all. As we’ve seen from The Soap Co, inclusive design doesn’t need to be boring or ugly. More often than not it’s the complete opposite. Introducing a set of constraints to the way we ordinarily think forces us to look beyond our own abilities and identity. This challenging adjustment is when unique and creative ideas come to the surface. The question is, as our values shift, how can we adapt existing products to be more accessible and inclusive? One step would be not mocking the people who need to use them in the first place.


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