When Felix Baumgartner (pictured) jumped to Earth from the stratosphere, the glass on his helmet clouded over. He could no longer see the data he needed on the inside of it, let alone how far he was from the ground. There was no audio function as back-up, because his team had never even considered the possibility of visual impairment. Baumgartner had to perform his supersonic freefall being less able. To all intents and purposes, he was "disabled".
Despite the lack of inclusive design thinking, the Austrian daredevil broke the sound barrier and landed safely back on Earth. But we shouldn’t have to go the edge of the atmosphere to see inclusive design’s benefits.
Disability has been part of humanity for longer than race and religion. Humans have been dealing with ageing, impairments, limitations and vulnerabilities since we came into being, and yet viewing design through the lens of disability is a discipline that remains largely neglected. So why has it taken until now to see the value of considering all needs?
With a stigmatised population of 1.3 billion globally, people with disabilities make up a market the size of China; caregivers add another 2.4 billion. So it’s hard to understand the unwillingness of organisations to invest more readily in this group. Beyond social sensitivity, there are significant gains to be made for everyone involved.
It seems that unless you have direct experience of disability or impairment, it’s not really something you’ll have much interest in, and you certainly won’t feel any responsibility for it. As a society, anything that deviates from the norm is seen as frightening, complex and uncomfortable. And, as a result of this fear, exceptional need remains low on the priority list when researching and developing new products, services or communications.
As a society, anything that deviates from the norm is seen as frightening, complex and uncomfortable
The majority of products or services we use day to day have been developed with typical, non-disabled users in mind, by typical, non-disabled designers and developers. But making the effort to explore and respond to different humans’ needs has the power to transform the lives of not just those with disabilities but anyone in pursuit of ease and efficiency.
Revolving doors, text messaging, escalators: all were devised to help people with impairments. But the chances are you don’t feel like a member of the "disabled community" each time you ping over an emoji.
These everyday examples prove that when design and assistive solutions have communion the very notion of disability is entirely reviewed, dismantled and rewritten – maybe even forgotten.
The biggest global brands have more influence and resources than most governments, so the power they wield in being able to change the conversation around disability is gargantuan. This is not about simply paying lip service, or creating a self-congratulatory brand film, but rather making a conscious commitment to invest and improve.
Thankfully, the recent movement toward mainstream inclusive practice has involved savvy brands becoming more attuned to helping people cope with modern life and tailoring their services beyond mainstream needs.
"Life" brands such as Sainsbury’s and Lloyds Banking Group are aware of the way that the average person’s health and ability fluctuates through the years and so have invested in more empathetic retail environments and heightened service design for more vulnerable customers. Their communications and advertising now show diversity as standard and they understand the importance of appealing to multifaceted humans.
There is no weepy "inspiration porn", just innovative, decent thinking that gives the brand a competitive edge
Other brands are also starting to improve the aesthetics of assistive products, with Apple and Microsoft among those proving that accessibility can be aspirational.
Microsoft’s commitment to the value of pan-ability is at its core. Its mission is to "help every person on the planet to achieve more", and by "every person", it means everyone. This board-level support means Microsoft is empowered to deliver inclusive solutions in every part of the business. From its inclusive hiring programme and tool kits to its thought-leadership, guidance and competitively accessible products, not to mention its UK recruitment drive among people with autism, Microsoft has positioned itself as one of the most authentically inclusive brands in the world.
It is not alone. It used to be the case that the more functional an item, the worse the aesthetic, but there are now more examples than ever of assistive products breaking stereotypes by pushing into the mainstream. Look at Gillette, which recently launched Treo – a razor specially designed for assisted shaving. Or Under Armour’s Magzip – a magnetic zipper designed for wearers who have only one arm, but which makes getting into garments easier for everyone, including those with two arms.
There is no weepy "inspiration porn", just innovative, decent thinking that gives the brand a competitive edge and affords a group of people that bit more independence.
Over to you
Exclusion on the basis of disability is so vast that tackling the problem can seem overwhelming. Moreover, temporary disabilities and life complications further broaden the spectrum.
Consider how we all get older day by day and how, therefore, we are all becoming less able. So improving customer experience and quality of life for all people has as much to do with you as it does with a wheelchair user or someone neurologically diverse.
And for creatives striving for what is different and unexpected, engaging more readily with disabled consumers provides all kinds of opportunities to create something truly new and engage with the world at a deeper and more fulfilling level.
Spring is all about new beginnings; it’s the perfect time of year to look ahead. So, as you think about your commitments to yourself and your business, make a promise to use your abilities to listen and respond to what disabled consumers think of your brand. This year, break those barriers and genuinely help everyone.
Marianne Waite is senior strategy consultant at Interbrand London and founder and director of Think Designable