When the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, it outlawed disability-based discrimination in all parts of public life. People with disabilities could no longer access schools, jobs and public transport, and places like restaurants, shops and movie theaters were soon equipped with ramps and elevators that made mobility easier. (Some public facilities are still working on this.) While the law has greatly transformed the way people with disabilities navigate the world, it only addresses areas of public accommodation and employment. Consumer products are a different story.
In recent years, however, there has been remarkable progress on many fronts. Reebok recently launched Fit to Fit, a collection of adaptable sneakers with easy-to-wear zippers, removable insoles that can accommodate dentures, and a low-cut design that aids mobility. Nike has experimented with hands-free technology for its Go FlyEase silhouette, the first 100% handsfree shoe ever made, but it drew criticism when retailers listed the limited-edition model for up to $2,000 online. (Fortunately, there are e-commerce marketplaces like Adaptist, suitable for the handicapped.) Meanwhile, Microsoft has redesigned its Xbox packaging and controllers for gamers with limited mobility.
When it comes to advancing 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 enhance a selection from the Swedish giant’s line to make them more usable by people with disabilities. Add-ons include handles that allow closet doors to be opened with the forearm and legs that make lifting a sofa easy.
A big boost is coming from furniture giant Pottery Barn, which recently reimagined more than 150 of its best-selling home furniture to better serve people with disabilities. The advances toward inclusion came after Marta Benson, president of the brand, noticed that one of her store’s restrooms did not contain Pottery Barn furniture because none of its consoles met an ADA clause requiring public restrooms to have accessible sinks. wheelchair. She began to tune in to issues of inclusion, which resulted in her hiring experts from the Disability Education and Advocacy Network and designers specializing in accessibility to consult on the collection.
Many products have received minor adjustments, such as desks whose dimensions have been adjusted to accommodate wheelchairs and which have open storage to eliminate the squeezing and pulling of drawers. Others were more elaborate – armchairs, for example, were equipped with an electric lift feature that made getting up and sitting down easier. Each affordable product fits the Pottery Barn look perfectly and is priced the same as the original. “We don’t want clients to feel like they live in a hospital,” says Benson Fast Company. “You shouldn’t have to compromise on design to have this functionality.”
Pottery Barn’s decision to design for inclusion is likely to be a boon for the business, because people with disabilities have considerable purchasing power. According to the American Research Institutes, the total disposable income for American adults with disabilities amounts to $490 billion. Despite this, few design brands have considered accessibility issues in their product line. “There is a long history of people with disabilities struggling to gain access to consumer products designed for their needs,” says Aimi Hamrai, associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. “The ADA only addresses areas of public housing and employment, so brands that manufacture homeware have not felt legally obligated to manufacture products for this community.” Upgrading products to better serve people with disabilities isn’t just good for business, it’s simply the right thing to do.