Disability as an Innovation Driver

Yellow light bulb over physical disability symbols with the caption “disability as an innovation driver”

(5 min read)

The typewriter, internet, closed captioning, text-to-speech, eye gaze.

All those inventions have in common a widespread application and impact. They were also originally created to overcome a limitation imposed by a disability. And there are a lot more, as this article points out.

Surprised? I was. Stereotypes do narrow our thinking.

Myth #1: Disability happens to others.

Truth: Google’s Director of User Experience Kat Holmes states on her book Mismatch that we all face the uncertainty of our ever-changing abilities. We have limited mobility when we are born. Through our lives we experience accidents, illness, and finally elderliness, facing new kinds of disabilities as we age. By creating products and services for inclusion, you are designing them for your future self.

Myth #2: Disability is a niche market.

Truth: We assume that low visibility in the media correlates with a small business opportunity. The World Bank estimates that there are 1 billion people – 15% of the world’s population – that experience some form of disability (source). Their friends and family add about 2.4 billion of potential customers. In all, this constitutes a market the size of China ($8 trillion/year) (source). Closer to home, the UK’s 12 million people with disabilities have a spending power of £120 billion as per AbilityNet, a British charity focused on the digital inclusion of people with disabilities.  

This is not only about getting new customers. It is also about not losing them. At a recent financial inclusion meeting, I met Diane, whose son has a mental disability. She has switched both their accounts to a fully digital bank which, unlike incumbents, offers the capability of setting a daily expense limit for her son.

Myth #3: The performance of people with disabilities is subpar. 

Truth: Workers with disabilities are consistently paid less for the same work, even if their disability is not related to the job work they perform – think about an accountant that needs a wheelchair for moving around. This is known as the disability pay gap (source) and variates greatly depending on the type of disability. For example, men with epilepsy experience a pay gap of around 40% (20% for women) as per the Equality and Human Rights Commission

As a society, we have an obsession with standardizing qualifications, achievements, potential, and especially background. The meritocracy discourse puts blinders on everything that doesn’t conform to our stereotypes, hindering innovation and wasting human potential.

  • Think about famous scientists, artists, and inventors with disabilities like Leonardo Da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Henry Ford, and Stephen Hawking (source).
  • Discovering Hands® in Germany trains people that are visually impaired for 9 months to carry out breast examinations. The results so far indicate that they detect up to 50% more tissue-alterations in the breasts than gynecologists (source).

Myth #4: This is an issue for governments and NGOs to solve.

Truth: It is. You can make a positive contribution too.

Do you write emails? This post lists 6 simple changes that can help users with dyslexia -a learning disability that affects one in 10 people worldwide (source) – read text better. Examples are avoiding justified text and using sans serif fonts (think Arial, Comics Sans, Century Gothic, Verdana, and Tahoma). If you want to highlight text, go for bold instead of italics or underlining words. All those tips benefit readers with visual impairments as well.

Do you own a website? Find out how accessible it is at http://www.cynthiasays.com/ or https://www.tawdis.net/. Disappointed? I was of mine (still work in progress). Start by reading this post from the blog Life of a Blind Girl. Low effort changes such as adding captions to pictures or alt text to images to provide context can make a  huge improvement in the user experience of those using screen readers.

BONUS: She also has a great post on how to make your social media posts accessible for people with a visual impairment. For example, for screen-readers to pronounce hashtags correctly, use capital letters at the start of each word.

Prefer listening? Check this FastForward podcast on The Importance of Inclusive Design for Websites.

Visual learner? For a great introduction to accessibility, check the Accessibility — UX Knowledge Base Sketch #76 by Krisztina Szerovay.

Do you own a business? Start a conversation with your marketing team. The website  www.w3.org/WAI/ has a wealth of resources, including checking accessibility of email marketing campaigns and compliance with web accessibility standards. This last point is no joke. In 2017, companies such as Nike and Burger King were involved in lawsuits alleging their sites didn’t comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act because they were not accessible for people with visual impairments (source).

New to inclusive experience design? Start by visiting my first post where I talk about the Empathy Prompts project.

Need more inspiration? Check this Medium article published by Pinterest, where they share 7 practices they have implemented to make the application more inclusive for Pinners who have visual impairments.

Mind your language. In the very thoughtful post Language That Enslaves Our Thinking, Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, founder of Syntax Training in Seattle, argues that the words we use bias our thinking. She compares the words “slave” vs “enslaved”. The first one, a noun, defines the person’s existence by a unique attribute, narrowing our perspective. The second, an adjective, allows your mind to consider additional identities: mother, father, son, daughter, husband, caregiver, cook, gardener, etc..

Try it yourself: Check how using “person with a hearing impairment” vs “deaf person” changes your perception of the capabilities of that individual.

Do you have other resources worth mentioning? Add them to the comments section.

Many thanks to María Luisa Toro-Hernández – Technical Project Coordinator at International Society of Wheelchair Professionals – for her invaluable mentoring on this topic. So much still to learn!

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