Assistive tech: a universal approach to design

It's still a challenge for people with disabilities to find everyday products that are suited to them. Here are a host of new brands that are designing for a broader human experience.
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According to a 2020 report by research and design firm Return on Disability, people with disabilities influence $13 trillion worth of disposable income. However, product designers and brands are still fixated on seeing disability as a charitable cause, the report says; instead, companies need to shift to ‘attract and delight customers and talent in disability markets’. 

The report points out that an estimated 1.85 billion people around the world live with some form of disability. That number grows to 3.3 billion when friends and family are accounted for, who also could influence purchase decisions in some way. With an aging population in many parts of the world, that number is likely to increase over the next couple of years. Overwhelmingly, the report calls for companies to consider the way that products and services can move beyond ‘mere accessibility’ and ‘get beyond poor legal [and] regulatory regimes and focus on what matters to all of their customers’. 

In Sydney, Remarkable runs a technology accelerator program for startups that are specifically designing products and services for people with disabilities. Founder Pete Horsley and marketing and events coordinator Vivien Mullan have seen a noticeable shift in the disability design space over the past few years. 

‘Assistive technology has always been associated with wheelchairs or screen readers, but the definition is really evolving to be about the lifestyle people want,’ Pete says. ‘There's digital transformation across every single industry, but the human services sector has often been lagging behind.’

Pete and Vivien point out that there's an emerging crop of startups incorporating user-friendly technology into accessibility products, focusing on how robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and wearables can improve lifestyle outcomes. ‘Self-driving cars are another really interesting part of autonomous technology,’ Pete adds. 

Beyond a disability

One particular company that stood out in the accelerator was Bump'n – formerly called Handi – a sex toy for people with hand and motor limitations. ‘We've often seen disability be thought of as asexual, but we're transitioning from this kind of textbook understanding of what assistive technology is,’ the brand says. 

Bump'n is an example of an assistive product that doesn't just focus on an individual's physical disability. Instead, the brand sees the end-user as an individual beyond a disability, with a personality, interests and design sensibilities. And this is the approach a number of new assistive design companies are taking. Gecko Traxx, for instance, is a portable tyre attachment that fits on to wheelchairs, allowing wheelchair users to access off-road paths and beaches. Susan and Anne Costello, who Courier interviewed last year, designed Eyra, a line of sleek, accessible kitchenware products that are not only angled to help those with motor limitations, but also appeal to the design-conscious consumer. 

For makeup fans, Kohl Kreatives has designed The Flex Collection, five brushes that bend for easy application. It also sells a set of six eye brushes that have Braille writing on them. Meanwhile, Intimately is due to launch an accessible lingerie line in 2022, which features easy, magnetic fastenings. Cur8able is an LA-based fashion consultancy focused exclusively on styling for people with disabilities, and Ffora designs bags, bottle holders and accessories that can be attached to most manual wheelchairs. 

Universal design

The question that many assistive technology startups are faced with is how to design beyond disability. For Pete and Vivien, the answer is pretty simple: design with human experience at the core of your product. ‘Engaging with your users and customers becomes all the more necessary.’ 

Some businesses might feel that they don't know where to start with building inclusive products, which is why user testing that focuses on accessibility is rising, too. Intopia in Australia and Fable in Canada offer accessibility testing services for businesses to trial prototypes, while Stark helps software developers create more accessible web pages, app wireframes and digital designs. 

And while involving end users in a design process is vital, the Remarkable team also warns that it's important not to perceive disabilities as issues that need to be fixed. A number of brands are turning their attention to more accessible and inclusive product design, but not all are doing it in a meaningful way: ‘You'll be falling short if you're just adding closed captions to video meetings,’ Pete and Vivien say.

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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