RiDC CEO, Gordon McCullough shares his three starting points for any business looking to make their products or service more accessible.
"Disability is nothing new. Humans have been living with impairments of different kinds since we have inhabited the earth. Yet it seems we are only just catching up with the fact that we all live with varying needs and abilities, and the things we use need to be designed in a way that reflects that."
At RiDC, in the last two years we have seen demand increase substantially for our services to help brands, companies, government and organisations to develop better, more inclusive and more accessible products.
I have a theory that the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns exposed people to the experience of being denied the ability to do and use everyday things. Not being able to see friends and family, to access the shops in the way you want to, or travel on public transport gave everyone the experience of being situationally disabled in some way. Conversations that disabled people have been having for years started to be had by everyone, and this has continued to filter into public consciousness.
One important reflection is that every person may be disabled by society in one way or another at different times in their lives. Yes, there are longer term disabilities: being born with a visual impairment for example, or inheriting a genetic condition. But I don’t just mean that. There is more awareness now of temporary disabilities: like a virus that stops you from being able to do your shopping in person, spraining your wrist so you need to use voice recognition software instead of typing, or experiencing such severe anxiety that you need support to leave the house.
In addition to this, we all have situational disabilities at different times. For example, being outside on a sunny day and not being able to see your phone’s display clearly so you adjust the contrast button, or being in a noisy restaurant and putting your phone on vibrate so you don’t miss an important call. We all use need and use this ‘accessible’ technology, services, support at different times in our lives.
And as we get older this will probably increase, as the aging process affects our vision, hearing, memory, the ability to move our bodies. Even how we can use our fingers, hands and arms can change too.
After Covid, there seems to be more awareness that everyone experiences being disabled. Most people know the feeling of how frustrating it is to be unable to do what they want they want to do.
So, it follows then, that if services and products are designed in consultation with disabled people at every step of the way, they are also going to work for the rest of the population at all these different times in their lives. The truth is that people want to use things that work well for them. And they will come back to them time and time again if they do.
If you’re not already thinking about it in your business or organisation, or if you are, and need some direction on where to head, here are my three essential starting points.
Assume you know nothing.
What does ‘accessible’ mean? Who is it ‘accessible’ to?
Everyone’s experience is subjective. That includes you and it includes disabled people. So, it’s essential to undertake comprehensive research into the experience of people living with many different types of impairments (mobility issues, hearing & visual impairments, development disorders for example) and ages (disability increases with age) to see how well they can use your product or service.
Clients are constantly surprised with the insights of our consumer panel of disabled and older people when they tell us what it’s like using a particular service or product. My favourite time in the research process (which happens without fail) is when we see a client have that lightbulb moment. The ‘that’s so interesting, I never thought about that’ or ‘that never occurred to me before’ moment. We absolutely need this input from a range of voices to get the 360-degree view, instead of a single standpoint. Even if you are the most well researched and informed person in the business, it can never replace the lived experience of a number of people.
You also need to ensure your research methods are accessible so everyone can give their feedback effectively.
Start with the disabled perspective every time you are thinking about doing anything.
Inclusive design needs to be embedded as a strategy or set of principles that lives in the DNA of your organisation. It can’t be an add on or something that just applies to one service or product. Everyone needs to know and understand the value as well as be a champion for it.
What’s super useful is when employees from across the business (not just designers) can be part of the process - observing and interacting with the focus groups or user testing with disabled people. Usually, what they see is not complaints but collaboration and ideas for solutions. Disabled people have been designing and using their own ‘work arounds’ for the things they use for many years and welcome the opportunity to share their innovations and ideas. It’s a collaborative and open approach, and this often triggers that lightbulb moment which completely changes the way people think about disability.
Put resource into it - because the benefits that come through are for everyone, not just for disabled people.
The truth is that yes, it can cost more to ensure your product or service is inclusive. The work that goes into this cannot be undercut. But in putting something to market that can be used by everyone, you will reap the benefits. It will be not just the Purple Pound coming back to you (the total spending power of disabled people and their families is estimated at £274 billion a year), but the repeat custom of all people who want to use things and services that work well. By creating something that is inclusive, it works for everyone.
It doesn’t always cost a lot to change things. A little tweak to a product or a website can make a significant difference to a whole load of people. The key is finding out exactly what that tweak needs to be.
Wherever stage your business is at, it’s never too late to make changes that can increase usability. There are no stupid questions – don't be embarrassed or afraid to take the next step.
My vision is for a future where the products that line our shelves, and the services we use every day, no longer need to be branded as ‘accessible for disabled people’. They are just well-designed products that work for everyone.
Here at the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC), we welcome enquiries from brands, businesses, organisations and government - whatever step of your journey to inclusion you are on.