Serving a market that business can't ignore


By being more aware of the problems faced by disabled people, companies can design products to suit their needs – and increase market share in the process, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

LAST WEEK, Cork teenager Joanne O’Riordan, who was born without limbs, addressed a United Nations conference in New York.

“My quality of life has changed dramatically since I started using technology and only the other day I told my mother that technology is the limb I never had,” she said.

“I can use my mobile phone, send texts, tweets, update my Facebook, play my PlayStation, Nintendo DS, iPad, iPod, and laptop; without Microsoft, Adobe and Apple in my life I would not be doing and achieving my full potential. In fact I think my life would be quite different to what it is now. Believe it or not I simply use my upper and bottom lip, chin, nose and hand to work most if not all these systems.”

For O’Riordan, innovations have meant access, and that’s an important message for business to take up.

Because it doesn’t just have to be about the latest gadget, it applies across the board: suppose you went to an establishment – perhaps a shop or a restaurant – and you couldn’t get in the door or move around easily? What if you couldn’t read the prices or menus? Or maybe a company sells a wonderful product but you can’t use it to its full extent. Would you give any of them your custom?

Making products and services more accessible for everyone can open new business opportunities, according to Caroline Casey, founder of Kanchi, an organisation that seeks to change mindsets and behaviours around disability. “If you want to have the greatest market share, that means you have to design products and services which get the greatest amount of people,” she says.

A trend she has witnessed in recent years is “universal design”, which keeps usability in mind. The TV remote control is a case in point, explains Casey. “It was originally designed for visually impaired people, but it became something for everyone,” she says. “Universal design is looking at creating beautiful design and beautiful products, but being thoughtful about how a load of different people will use those designs.”

And even if companies are not already embracing universal design, they should be aware of the disability market, according to Casey. “If we are talking about the broadest spectrum of disability; that market size is growing annually,” she says, likening it in scale to the size of China. “That ‘China’ is under your nose.”

Conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, as well as visual impairment and hearing loss, can result in people acquiring disabilities in adulthood, says Casey.

“Today in Europe, 16 per cent of our population has a disability. By 2020, 20 per cent of our population will have a disability,” she says. “Our baby boomers who have money are getting older, acquiring disabilities, and they can’t get into the golf club or restaurant, or open their briefcase.”

For businesses, increasing accessibility can bring in more custom, she says. “You are more likely going to spend money where you know that you will get the services and products that you want, and you will go back.

“Then there is the family and friends ‘loyalty factor’ – they will support that.”

One case where Kanchi has worked with a business to increase accessibility is McDonald’s. At the restaurant in Shannon, Kieran McDermott saw the need for a rethink on access when staff with disabilities started working for him.

“We realised we needed to re-look at how we kitted out our store,” says McDermott.

So when he was preparing to open another restaurant in Ennis in 2009, he sought to make it accessible for staff and customers with disabilities.

“We made the doors slightly wider around the restaurant and we designed the drive-through booth to be fully wheelchair accessible,” says McDermott. “If an employee can access our building, so can customers. And it’s not just a customer in a wheelchair; it’s also [useful for] a mum with a buggy.”

They made the toilet facilities more accessible, put hearing loops at tills, offered portable menus with larger writing and installed Braille signage to help people with visual impairment to navigate.

“No company purposely goes out of its way to cut off 10 per cent of its target market, but by not making your premises or products accessible to the disabled community, that’s what you are doing,” says McDermott.

“People with disabilities still need to get their hair cut, get their teeth seen to, buy clothes, go to a 40th birthday. This is not rocket science, it’s sending out the message to someone with a disability that this is a place to relax, and we understand, and is there anything we can do to help you?”

McDonald’s restaurants in Ireland now feature hearing loops and Braille signage and menus, and the organisation has rolled out disability awareness training across its system.

Other companies have also seen opportunities in addressing the needs of people with disabilities or special needs.

SKM Products in Dublin was making office furniture when, about 15 years ago, a client asked about making tables for wheelchair users. Company founder Pat McGee, who has a daughter with special needs, says they started to research the area and designed a model that gave height adjustability.

“Some tables are not accessible for people using wheelchairs,” he says. “The table needs to have the correct height for posture.”

They went on to work with special-needs organisations and occupational therapists and they now have a range of products, such as clever cut-out designs to accommodate the joystick on a powered wheelchair, allowing the user to sit comfortably at the table.

The company recently brought in new designs to suit the needs of children with autism. “We have been working with schools in the last six to nine months in the autism area,” says McGee, who describes how tables are designed to tilt adjustably and to support various infills of trays and “discovery pouches” for sensory-based activities or baking, among other features.

Meanwhile, Kieran O’Callaghan in Cork spotted another need, that of swimmers with visual impairment who could face injury if they hit the wall of the pool.

“There’s a tapper system, where someone would tap the swimmer with a stick with a foam end as they approach the wall,” says O’Callaghan, founder and chief executive of Vision Research Enterprises.

“That means for one swimmer they need two tappers, one at each end of the lane.”

While studying at Cork Institute of Technology, O’Callaghan developed a different solution. “I designed a system to detect the position of the swimmer and relay the position of the swimmer to them,” he says.

“It’s an array of cameras looking down at the pool, each pixel is a sensor and it monitors the position of the swimmer’s head by the colour of the cap they are wearing.

“The swimmer wears a waterproof radio headset, which is like an earpiece, and when they reach the warning distances they want to be alerted at, they hear different tones and intensities.” As well as helping swimmers to avoid unwanted bumps at the ends of lanes, the AquaEye system can also tell them about the positions of lane dividers and so help them navigate the pool.

Joanne O’Riordan can attest that universal design can change lives. Caroline Casey argues it also makes business sense.