Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

Design for the disabled and you can’t go wrong

Things created specifically for people with disabilities often end up being valuable to many more people

About 30 years ago, BT introduced a telephone handset with enormous keys. It was intended for people with serious visual impairment. Unexpectedly, it became their bestselling phone.

There is a reason for this. The millions of people who wear spectacles or contact lenses typically remove them at night, making the normal tiny keys impossible to read on a bedside phone.

Things designed specifically for people with disabilities often end up being valuable to many more people than originally planned. Most of us are effectively disabled some of the time. Wheelchair ramps at airports and stations are not only useful if you are in a wheelchair, they are also useful for wheeling heavy luggage. Likewise, it isn’t only the blind who find it handy that shampoo bottles open at the top and conditioner bottles at the bottom; I have fairly good eyesight normally, but in a shower I can’t read a bloody thing.

Hotel showers are a user-experience nightmare: by the time you’ve scalded yourself playing Russian roulette with the inscrutable designer taps, you then have to squint at six-point type to discover which of the three poncey bottles might contain the shampoo.

Generally, it is a good principle to design for people — all people — under the assumption that they do not have full use of their faculties or complete freedom of movement at the point of use.

Modern architectural standards often mandate that doors in new buildings are fitted with door handles rather than knobs. This stipulation is intended for people who are severely arthritic or who have lost the use of their hands. If, like me, you are the kind of curmudgeon prone to grumbling about this kind of legislation, it is worth remembering that whenever you are carrying a couple of mugs of tea, you too have effectively lost the use of your hands.

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