Inclusive Design: How More Accessible Tech Drives Innovation for Everyone

A new initiative to kick mobility tech into overdrive. 

by James Dennin

Curb cuts first hit the streets in 1945 to help make it easier for people in wheelchairs to get around in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. Since then, they’ve found dozens of other potential uses, not only in helping people with wheelchairs around the world but also all manner of cyclists, scooter riders, stroller-pushers, and people who prefer to carry suitcases with rollers.

That, in a nutshell, is the aspiration of inclusive design: By centering users with an ability difference, we can create more products that are better for everyone in unexpected ways, explains August de los Reyes, a user experience lead at Google who has held similar roles at Pinterest and XBox.

“The short hand is that accessibility is almost like a workaround, a compliment to an existing solution or experience,” de los Reyes tells Inverse. “Inclusive design, from its genesis, looks and focuses on the user with an ability difference and designs for her or him, assuming it benefits everyone. You get accessibility for free, but it tends to produce a more universally useful and hopefully delightful experience.”

There are lots of examples of inclusive design’s virtues, de los Reyes says, from the remote control to the origins of the QWERTY keyboard to kitchen appliances that come with grips.

Finding the Next Breakthrough in Mobility Tech

While he says that technology companies large and small have largely embraced the principles of inclusive design, there are still places where accessibility remains an afterthought. 39 percent of people surveyed said that being in wheelchair had prevented them from working, and 34 percent said that being in a wheelchair limited the number of jobs they could apply for. Along with the Toyota Mobility Foundation and Nesta Challenge Prize Centre, de los Reyes is hoping that the The Mobility Unlimited Challenge can help change that by encouraging the development of more groundbreaking assistive technology.

“Even within each of the buckets of ability difference, there’s so many things to consider. That’s part of the reason why accessibility has been, it seems like a boil the ocean exercise, it seems overwhelming,” de los Reyes said. “Looking even at color blindness, there are actually nine varieties.”

(de los Reyes knows a lot about color blindness, having worked on initiatives at Pinterest to make the platform more adaptable for people with vision impairments.)

“The nature of the challenge is to rethink mobility devices and assistive technologies that live with lower limb paralysis,” he says. “Part of that is to start thinking out side of the box, and the proverbial box is the wheelchair.”

To find and incentivize these would-be innovators, the challenge will dole out some $4 million over the course of three years, with the final challenge occurring in Tokyo in 2020. The winners will receive $1 million to further their project, which can run the gamut from using sensors to make the workplace more inclusive to mechanical limbs.

Five runners up will receive $500,000, and 10 entrants have already received some seed funding of $50,000, though that’s not necessary to compete for the final prize. Even if these inventions can’t immediately be brought to market, the hope is that seeing emerging mobility tech in action will inspire other firms.

“It’s easier to show rather than tell,” de los Reyes said. “You don’t really get it until you really engage, and that’s what the challenge invites: To show these innovations, in a hands-on tangible way, which is the most powerful way to get them adopted.”

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