As a Director at Canada’s largest clinic for prescribing complex neuro-rehab technologies, I bear witness everyday to the lengths our clients will go to to overcome disabilities and participate in a world that is designed almost entirely for able-bodied actors.
Our Clinic sees thousands of clients each year with diagnoses ranging from congenital conditions, such as Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy, to those that occur without warning – ALS, MS, Parkinsons, Spinal Cord Injury. The experiences and attitudes across our clients span a similarly wide spectrum; some come to us trying to regain hope while others are beaming with optimism and pride just looking for the next innovation to get them back to their busy schedules. It’s that myriad of experiences that, as an able-bodied person and otherwise outsider to this world, inspired me to co-create evika.io – an online directory to deliver education about assistive technologies. I wanted to create a space where the community could come together to support one another in a way that I had the inability to weigh in from personal experience.
Then last week I tuned into a Zoom panel in support of today’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day and Andreas Forsland, CEO of Cognixion, said something that has really stuck with me: “Accessibility is really just usability….” It was such a simple statement, but it left me with so much to think about and filled me with energy about the role we’ll all play in the future of inclusive design.
1. Commercial Opportunity for Inclusive Design
The reality behind every product or service designed for social good is that – no matter how important it is to its users – it needs to make enough money to survive as a business. Three things need to be true to make that happen: 1) It meets a meaningful need, 2) that need is relevant to a meaningfully sized group of consumers, and 3) enough of those consumers have the means to pay for the product or service to make it profitable. The first rule has never been a problem as designing products and services for disabled users will often have life-sustaining implications. The trouble has always been reaching sufficient volumes of consumers with the capacity to purchase to keep such meaningful technologies flowing.
So why am I optimistic?
Well first, there’s a statistic from the WHO that has recently become very popular: There are 1 billion people in the world today who have a need for an assistive device and that’s expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030. Let’s put that into perspective – how much is 2 billion people? Well it’s….
- 25% of the world’s projected population in 2030
- 6.5x the entire population of the United States
- 10x the number of total active Twitter users
The thought of so many people in need of assistance might seem disheartening, but the causes for the population growth are legitimately worth being excited about: we’re living at a time when innovations in medicine are extending life expectancies across the board. That means the people we love will have the opportunity to live longer lives, we just need to be prepared for the direct correlation between aging and disability. Those aged 65+ are more than 2x as likely to incur a moderate or severe disability as their 45-55 year-old counterparts. So yes, we’ll have more time to spend with loved ones while also needing to provide for specialized needs.
Then there’s another trend that the aging population – those aging beyond 65 years – is one of the most affluent generations in recorded history with a disproportionate amount of wealth and consumer influence.
The impact of these two powerful forces has been clear: since 2014 the market for Assistive Devices has almost doubled from $13B to $23B in 2018 and that’s expected to jump again to $35.5B by 2026.
Money talks and for the first time in history we’re staring at a need for inclusive design that encapsulates 25% of the world’s population and $35.5B+ of spending power. It’s a seismic shift in representation for the disabled population among consumers and it’s one that no company or government can afford to ignore.
Which brings me to discuss the second major shift….
2. Attitude: Accessibility or Usability?
“Accessibility is really just usability…” It rings over and over in my head. I may not have personal experience with accessibility, but I’ve certainly been involved in usability programs and I immediately understand this sentiment. Usability has standardly been used to describe the ease with which target end-users can use a product, whereas accessibility is standardly regarded as being for a small group of users with special needs for access. As consumer power shifts towards the population of end users with specialized needs, it becomes impossible for manufacturers, retailers and public agencies to ignore that accessibility ought to be the dominant consideration for usability, or risk alienating powerful groups of their patrons and constituents. Accessibility suddenly becomes synonymous with Usability, with considerations for specialized access being made the priority. It’s such a nuanced, but powerful shift in attitudes.
But is this change real? Is it actually happening?
Yes. Every major government is already going through major planning exercises for social programs and urban designs to accommodate the growing needs, but Apple is probably the best example. If you’ve never developed an app for the App Store, you may not realize Apple’s unflinching requirement for all apps to follow strict design features for accessibility needs.
Every. Single. App.
Google has followed suit, launching major programs to adapt their core technologies to meet the needs of the disabled.
Not all companies have started moving yet. As with any change there are leaders and there are laggards, but the largest, most innovative companies in the world are changing their attitudes from accessibility being a specialized, niche requirement to a fundamental element of everything they design. The two concepts are quickly becoming a uniform thought and I’m optimistic that we will see it more ubiquitously over the next 5-10 years, as more organizations realize the powerful shift towards disabled patrons.
Where else can we find evidence of this shift towards ubiquitous inclusive design…..?
3. Technological and Social Innovation
This one is probably the most obvious, but it also needs recognition as the great equalizer. With each passing day it feels like innovation – either technical or social – is making it easier and easier to access anything and everything we want from our homes, desks, couch, favourite chairs…
First it was Siri in 2011, then the Amazon Echo in 2014 and then Google Home in 2016. After that, technical and social innovation began to converge as ‘smart homes’ became a mainstream term, with phones and smart hubs controlling alarm systems, light-switches, thermostats and even door locks. If you are an able-bodied person like me then you probably thought, “Wow. This is great! Now I can make calls, flash my lights and look up dumb movie facts while my hands are dirty in the kitchen or busy driving. What a great thing to make my life a little easier.” It was also easy to overlook the effect that hands-free interaction with your home would have on disabled consumers affected by weakened upper body mobility or locked-in conditions. It was suddenly a new world of independence where one could turn off her own lights before bed, or play music whenever the mood struck, or lock their own door. Same innovation, different impacts – not uncommon, but it’s an important trend that almost invisibly, the functional gap between disabled and able-bodied people to live at home independently became just incrementally smaller. Small step, but an important insight and a powerful reminder of how technology can equalize opportunity.
Now it’s 2021 and we’re all moving through a global pandemic, where suddenly technical and social innovation have conspired again to reduce another important gap: employment. Disabled members of the workforce are historically less likely to find employment and more likely to earn lower wages than able-bodied counterparts. Well here comes cloud computing, Zoom and work from home orders – where complicated commutes or mentally and physically exhausting office routines would stand in the way of employment, today there is more opportunity to compete from the comfort of your own home, pre-designed to meet your needs – whether you are disabled or able-bodied.
By no means am I suggesting that social practices have caught up to this level of open-mindedness – and unfortunately that seems to be true across physical ability, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, skin colour – but, in this case, the outputs of technical and social innovation combining over the past 10 years seem to be reducing the barriers for social inclusion. That makes me optimistic that we are inching towards a reality where disabled workers can enjoy the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts.
As an able-bodied person, I can’t pretend to speak from a place where I understand the mental and physical exhaustion of living with a disability day in and day out. I see it regularly, but from a distance. Today – on Global Accessibility Awareness Day – I wanted to vocalize my optimism about a future where Accessibility and Usability are a uniform consideration. Medical innovation is giving rise to longer lives, which comes with larger more powerful groups of disabled consumers to drive the importance of inclusive design. Corporations and governments have already started to take note and have begun implementing social plans and product design philosophies that unflinchingly require inclusive design or else are rejected outright. And the impact of converging technological and social innovations are showing the right signs of closing the gap of how able-bodied and disabled actors are able to live independently, maintain quality of life and enjoy similar employment opportunities.
There is still a long way to go and probably thousands more innovations to understand before we get there, but lets all keep our eyes open and keep working hard to keep moving in the right direction.