How Disability Shapes Better Products — and Better Organizations
Not too long ago, businesses were operating in what Jenny Lay-Flurrie calls “the dark ages”. As Microsoft’s director of accessibility and someone who describes herself as “deeply deaf,” Lay-Flurrie said the concerns and needs of people with disabilities were almost completely ignored by the business world.
“You would find that accessibility is provided by volunteers. It was volunteering. It was not part of a formalized job description. It wasn’t an industry or a discipline,” Lay-Flurrie said.
Everything started to change. Businesses large and small are recognizing the importance of integrating accessible design into the products and services they provide, as well as into their own internal operations.
Three pioneering companies recently shared the stage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival to discuss how disability and accessibility are integrated into their operations, from hiring and product development to marketing and the C-suite.
For Microsoft, disability thinking has led to new ways of doing business and new markets, including visually impaired people who use screen readers to use computers and gamers with reduced mobility who need different controllers to be able to play. “It’s not something we do because we’re just nice people. We do it because it’s strategically important to us,” Lay-Flurrie said.
Other industries see similar opportunities. Beauty guide is a company that manufactures makeup and beauty products designed specifically for people with reduced mobility and dexterity. The company was founded by Terri Bryant, a celebrity makeup artist with two decades of experience who began to lose dexterity in her hand and was later diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Her impaired dexterity limited her ability to do her job, but she soon realized that part of the problem was that the tools of the trade were not designed to be used by people like her.
“My hand is not stable,” she told (and showed) the audience at the Innovation Festival. “Now if I have to come freehand to my eye with something and I’m shaking, there’s a good chance I’ll prick my eye.”
This scenario has led to the design of makeup tools with small button-like rings that users can grasp more easily without the precision of a pincer grip. “Now I don’t have a problem with my hands not being free. I can ground myself and steady myself and steady myself whether I’m doing my brows or my mascara,” Bryant said.
Guide Beauty is expanding its products to meet the needs of a variety of users, based on feedback from people who are not well served by traditional makeup products on the market. The company has gained cachet in this space by bringing in actress Selma Blair, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018, as creative director, but also by engaging directly with customers. in prototyping and product design. “Inviting them is just this highly iterative process. You look at where the roadblocks are, and then you can design them and solve them,” Bryant said. “It takes a minute, but in the end you get a better product, a better process, and a better community.”
This thinking can also work on a large scale, according to Rob Van Varick, design director at Michael Graves Design. The company, whose late founder was paralyzed from the waist down in his late 60s, turned to accessibility design and formed major partnerships with retailers like Target. More recently, the company has created a line of medical equipment for CVS, including items like walkers, canes and commodes – otherwise unsightly institutional items that people don’t necessarily want but need and with. which they interact daily.
“Your house ends up looking like a hospital,” Van Varick said. “We wanted to give people a choice.
One example is the chest of drawers – “imagine a walker with a bucket in the middle”, said Van Varick – which Michael Graves Design has redesigned to look more like regular furniture. “We wanted to do something that looked good in the bathroom, that looked good out of the bathroom, something that when not in use and the lid is down, looks like a chair in the room and nobody thinks a second thought about it.”
Better design of these types of utilitarian medical devices, Van Varick told the Innovation Festival audience, helps reduce the stigma associated with their need and use. “Aging is not a sexy subject. People don’t want to talk about it, let alone think about it; but we have to change that,” he said. “Because if we do better, it will basically benefit everyone.”
Taking disability issues seriously, and not just trying to come up with a solution that people may not want, is a key business strategy for each of the companies on the panel. And according to Microsoft’s Lay-Flurrie, it’s becoming a bigger part of how many other companies operate. She points out that LinkedIn recently added a long list of accessibility jobs to their system, allowing job seekers to search for accessibility and disability-focused roles. “Accessibility roles grew 78% over a 12-month period,” Lay-Flurrie said. The increase is significant, she added, but noted that the total number of jobs focused on this goal is still relatively small, at around 12,000 in the United States. “There’s still a long way to go, but he’s getting there.” The Dark Ages may be behind us.