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Russell Gundry

Head of innovation strategy, Plexal

Tech’s missing a trick by not designing for disability

When Domino’s was sued earlier in the year for having a website that wasn’t accessible for the blind, the pizza chain responded by taking the issue to the US Supreme Court.

An alternative course of action could have been to run a design audit to rectify the issue and serve the customer base better. Over one billion people are disabled – approximately 15 per cent of the global population.

Even if we don’t focus on the moral imperative of universal design, the market is failing to address this need and tap into an enormous, unmet opportunity. And while nobody likes to think about getting older, we’ll all become less able in different ways, which means the market is only going to get bigger.

So why, with some notable exceptions, has big tech been so slow to catch on? Despite the disruption of many industries by technology, the sector is largely failing to put disability-led thinking at the forefront of innovation. Emerging solutions in fields like AI, robotics and haptics aren’t reaching disabled people fast enough, and assistive tech isn’t becoming affordable quickly enough.

Part of the problem is our collective failure to understand the innovation opportunity that designing for disability creates. From touchscreen technology and the typewriter to the OXO potato peeler, there are countless examples of everyday objects that were initially created to solve a specific accessibility challenge but have gone on to be useful to a much larger group of people. To pick another example, the history of the transistor (the building block of computing) is interwoven with the development of hearing aids. Accessible design is good design. And accessible design has created leaps and bounds of development.

We also haven’t yet put the right mechanisms in place to foster a collaborative approach to innovation – one where people with first-hand accessibility challenges are paired with coders, makers, investors, innovative startups and large organisations capable of scaling ideas. Assistive technology can appear prohibitively expensive at the outset due to the cost of developing solutions relative to the size of the user base. But we can encourage the sharing of development resources in return for an equitable distribution of gains among contributors.

And it really has to be equitable. Too often it’s the “user” – the person with an unmet need – who is expected to donate their ideas to organisations seeking commercial gain. But experts by experience should be rewarded appropriately in return for their insight.

We set out on a bold journey at Plexal to build this collaborative model. Through OpenDoor (our inclusive design accelerator programme) and the recently launched East London Inclusive Enterprise Zone, we’re providing disabled entrepreneurs with a platform to innovate in a physical environment that will be optimised for accessibility. Together with the Global Disability Innovation Hub, University College London and a network of innovators based at our Here East campus, we’re helping to build diverse teams to develop assistive technology solutions, get them to the people who need them and enable large organisations to unlock new innovation pathways at scale.

Designing for disability can be a powerful engine of innovation, discovery and creativity:  both corporations and the investment community need to wake up to the opportunity.

Russell Gundry is head of innovation strategy at Plexal