When the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, it prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in all areas of public life. People with disabilities could no longer be denied access to schools, jobs and public transport, and places such as restaurants, shops and cinemas were soon equipped with ramps and elevators to facilitate mobility. (Some public facilities are still working on it.) Although the law has significantly transformed the way people with disabilities navigate the world, it only affects areas of public housing and employment. Consumer products are another story.
In recent years, however, there has been notable progress on many fronts. Reebok recently launched Fit to Fit, a collection of adaptive sneakers with easy-to-use zippers, removable insoles that can accommodate prostheses, and a low-top design that aids mobility. Nike experimented with hands-free technology for its Go FlyEase silhouette, the first 100% hands-free sneaker ever made, but drew criticism when retailers listed the limited-edition model for up to $2,000 online. (Fortunately, there are e-commerce marketplaces like Adaptista adapted for people with disabilities.) Microsoft, meanwhile, has redesigned its Xbox packaging and controllers for gamers with limited mobility.
When it comes to making progress in accessibility, the design and furniture industries lag behind fashion and technology. One exception is Ikea, which in 2019 released the ThisAbles set of 3D-printable “furniture hacks” that improve a selection from the Swedish giant’s range to make them more usable by people with disabilities. Accessories include handles that allow cupboard doors to be opened with the forearm and feet, making it easier to lift a sofa.
A major push comes from furniture giant Pottery Barn, which recently reinvented more than 150 of its best-selling home furnishings to better suit people with disabilities. The move towards inclusivity came after brand president Marta Benson noticed that one of her store’s bathrooms didn’t contain Pottery Barn furniture because none of her consoles were compliant with a ADA clause that requires public bathrooms to have wheelchair accessible sinks. She began to take an interest in issues of inclusivity, which led the brand to hire experts from the Disability Education and Advocacy Network and designers specializing in accessibility to consult on the collection.
Many products have received small tweaks, such as desks that have been sized to accommodate wheelchairs and feature open storage to eliminate grab and pull drawers. Others were more elaborate – armchairs, for example, were fitted with an electric lift function that made it easier to get up and sit down. Each accessible product fits seamlessly into the look of Pottery Barn and is priced the same as the original. “We don’t want customers to feel like they’re living in a hospital,” Benson said. fast company. “You shouldn’t have to compromise design to have this functionality.”
Pottery Barn’s decision to design for inclusiveness is likely to be a boon for business, as people with disabilities have considerable purchasing power. According to the American Institutes for Research, the total disposable income of American adults with disabilities is $490 billion. Despite this, few design brands have factored accessibility issues into their product line. “There is a long history of people with disabilities struggling to access consumer products designed for their needs,” says Aimi Hamrai, associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. “The ADA only affects the areas of public accommodation and employment, so brands that make homewares haven’t felt legally obligated to make products for this community.” Updating products to better suit people with disabilities isn’t just good for business, it’s simply the right thing to do.