Why Companies Should be Looking to People with Disabilities to Solve Their Greatest Problems

As humans, we are always wanting more. We want to go further, be faster, be stronger, see more, hear more, and do more. We are in the perpetual pursuit for “super abilities.” And our best tool to realize this is people with disabilities.

“Huh?” You might be saying. We view people with disabilities as being the polar opposite of super abilities. Disability, by definition, means that we are lacking in ability. So why should we be looking to it?

The reason is when we solve for disability, we solve for the super human powers we all want. This is because we are learning how to create ability in the absence of human ability. Disability is no longer a problem to be solved but instead an opportunity to gain insights into valuable, new directions where powerful solutions emerge.

What follows is a three-part series discussing why looking to disability is so valuable. First, we’ll consider how looking to extremes makes us develop solutions that are better than when we design for the norm. Second, we will consider how people with disabilities help us uncover needs that are often hidden but lead to profound innovations for the mainstream. And finally, we’ll discuss how people with disabilities develop unique skills that are valuable to our innovation process.


Part I: The Value in Extremes

In the past, we designed for average. It made sense in that the greatest number of people fall around average. However, in design, we are starting to recognize that we should be designing for extremes.

The Classic Example

There is a classic example that design thinkers use to illustrate the power of looking to extremes rather than average that is described by Todd Rose in his book, “The End of Average.” In the 1920s and 1930s the Airforce (called Army Air Corps back then) designed planes around averages – average height, reach, thigh circumference, etc. However, in the 1940s, when planes became a lot more complex to fly due to jet powered aviation, all sorts of crashes suddenly started happening. When they investigated further, they took measurements of over 4,000 pilots and compared these measurements to the average that they had been designing around. What they realized was that not one pilot fit the average measurements. So instead, they asked manufacturers of airplanes to design around extremes. The tallest and shortest pilots, longest and shortest reaches. When they did this, the crashes stopped happening. They also realized that when they were forced to design under these constraints, they created planes that were cheaper to make.

Let’s look at this concept of designing for extremes a little deeper. Average is a number to identify the center point of a group. But in design, usually we are designing for the individual experience, not a group experience. Further, the average person just doesn’t exist. The reality is that we all vary in some way from average whether in ability, size or strength. When we design around average, each step away from that average means the match between person and product gets worse and usability decreases.

 When we design around average, usability decreases with each step away from average.  

When we design around average, usability decreases with each step away from average.  

However, if we design around the extremes – the two opposite ends of the spectrum, each step away from these end points doesn’t result in a decrease of usability but rather increases it, if anything. Thus, if we solve for extreme cases, we solve for most users. 

 If we design for extremes, usability increases with each step towards average.

If we design for extremes, usability increases with each step towards average.

Harnessing the Extreme in Disability

So where do we find the extreme users? In people with disabilities. In fact, disabilities are so extreme that they are legally classified as a significant limitation of a major life function.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out. Years ago, Google Maps did not provide any verbal directions – it was all visual. This made it difficult for a blind person to benefit from the application. However, we originally viewed Google Maps as a wayfinding application for when we drive. How could a blind person benefit? Why should we even design for them? You could almost argue that they are so extreme as to sit outside the spectrum. But Google did look to blind people, and they spearheaded the addition of verbalized directions. What they realized was that if you provided verbal directions, not only could the blind benefit, but sighted drivers could benefit as well. This is because we often can’t look at our Google Maps when we are driving and need to rely instead on hearing directions for safety reasons.

This highlights another essential point here. I mentioned earlier that we are all in pursuit of “super abilities.” And often a “super ability” is essentially creating an ability when we become momentarily disabled such as when we are driving and unable to see or interact safely with our phone. The "super ability” is when we overcome this momentary disability and can both drive and interact with our phone. This is why solving for disability means we are solving for “super abilities.” 

Tech companies such as Microsoft and IBM Watson are beginning to catch on to the power of designing for disability. In fact, IBM created a brilliant business model with their Accessible Ollie project which aims to create a fully accessible self-driving car. They have managed to convince the disability community and various accessible tech companies (including my client, KinTrans) to all contribute to the design of this car – many just in exchange for the good exposure that it generates for their product.

What IBM realized is that we don’t know the context in which we will be using self-driving cars in the future. Perhaps people will be attached to the notion that a car will be a personal vehicle. Perhaps it will become more of an on demand, mass transit thing like Uber without a driver, requiring it to be accessible to the elderly and those in wheelchairs. Regardless, designing for disability allows them to anticipate most future needs. Design for a wheelchair, and we make it easy for parents wheeling their kids around in strollers. Design for the deaf and we design for someone who may be distracted, on a phone call, or listening to music. After all, one of the biggest benefits of a self-driving car will be the ability to multi task and be distracted while being driven from one destination to the next.

Stay tuned for Part II: Finding Hidden Needs…