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The biggest driver of innovation you’ve never heard of

The call to incorporate accessible design into a website can sometimes be met with resistance: it’s seen as an impediment to full functionality. That’s the wrong attitude, argues UX Consultant Zoe Rose on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Designing for people with disabilities has in fact unlocked some of the world’s major innovations.

What do baby prams and rolling luggage have to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990?

Answer: ramps.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed a little over 25 years ago, disability was contextualised and the concept of access became enshrined as a human right. In order to comply with the new requirements laid out in the Act, architects and planners began to fit the country’s buildings, streets and footpaths with ramps, lifts and gangways that adhered to a ‘universal design’ ethos.

Noticing this increased accessible design in and around built environments, luggage and pram manufacturers saw an opportunity. They began to produce wheeled products that could, for the first time, emphasise properties such as safety or capacity beyond their ability to be carried over kerbs or lugged up flights of stairs. As Valerie Fletcher from the Institute for Human Centered Design noted, rolling luggage became the norm ‘because we can expect accessible transitions’.

A solution for greater good

As this example demonstrates, accessible design is a little-known driver of innovation that ends up benefiting everybody – not just people with disabilities.

The process tends to work like this: a person has a disability that prevents them from performing a task that they want to do. They (or someone close to them) then come up with a technological solution that empowers any person with disabilities to perform the task. The solution proves so useful that others later adopt and innovate atop the solution, forgetting it was ever associated with accessible design in the first place.

It is not just objects in the physical world, such as luggage and prams, that have reaped the benefits of accessible design. The digital world also owes much of its existence to designs for people with disabilities.

Technology and accessible design

Without universal design, there would be no computer keyboards: the first typewriter was created in 1808 to enable a blind woman to write legible love letters. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife and mother were deaf, and his work on hearing devices led to the first patent for a telephone. Herman Hollerith, the inventor of the ‘punch card’, was inspired to conceive this non-written method of storing and processing information due to his own cognitive processing disorder. The company he founded later formed IBM.

Even the fundamental building block of all computing, the transistor, owes its existence to the pursuit of smaller, more efficient hearing aids. That invention, by the way, won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

There’s little doubt that many future breakthroughs will also follow this same progress path. Recently, Microsoft flipped the traditional approach and began integrating universal design into its core design philosophy, a concept dubbed ‘inclusive design’. (“We’re reframing disability as an opportunity,” says Microsoft’s principal design director.) More futuristically, progress is being made on prosthetic arms that are neurologically controlled by their user. Who can say where that will lead?

We don’t think of disability as being a key driver of the world’s innovations, but we should. Because it is.

Zoe Rose was a former Senior UX Consultant in the Experience Centre, part of PwC’s Digital Services.