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Guardian Small Business Network Designing for disability: the businesses breaking down barriers

People with disabilities represent a vast market that is often overlooked and largely untapped.

Globally there are 1.3bn people with disabilities, representing a market the size of China, and in the UK the spending power of disabled people and their households, known as the purple pound, is worth £249bn.

It is a market ripe with opportunities for innovative companies, including small businesses, many of which are founded by those closest to the market, people affected by disabilities, who create their own solution to the daily challenges they face.

Marianne Waite, founder of non-profit collective Think Designable, believes that these small firms, built on real-life experience, have an advantage over large companies. “They are created as barrier free as possible,” she says. “Large organisations often need to change old systems to remove the barriers for people with disabilities. Small new entrants to the market are able to be agile from the word go.”

Sebastien Archambeaud spent a lot of time travelling with his family until his son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He says: “Suddenly we had to take new factors into account when booking accommodation, and became frustrated at how difficult it was to find good places at a decent price and with the required accessibility, not because it wasn’t there, but because no one was gathering that information and making it available on a single global platform.”

Sebastien Archambeaud, founder of Handiscover
Sebastien Archambeaud, founder of Handiscover, a booking website focused on accessibility. Photograph: Hampus Öberg

That frustration drove Archambeaud to devise a solution of his own. With a background in international business and technology, in 2015 he created Handiscover, a booking website with a focus on accessibility.

“I used my own money, and did a crowdfunding round with Crowdcube to finance the technology, which also helped us to build a network of angel investors,” he says. Having tested the market in the UK and Sweden last year Handiscover, which has more than 2,000 active users, will expand further into Europe this year.

Ten years ago, Fiona Jarvis also developed her own solution to the difficulties of being less able and turned it into a flourishing business. A former IT sales worker, Jarvis has MS and struggled to get into many venues. Her online research into which London venues were good for people with disabilities formed the basis of Blue Badge Style, an app and website guide to help people with disabilities continue to enjoy their social life.

Fiona Jarvis, founder of the Blue Badge Style app
Fiona Jarvis, the founder of Blue Badge Style app and website, which shows how disabled-friendly various venues are. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

However, she believes that small businesses are struggling to find the investment they need to grow and innovate. “Even though everyone recognises this is a growing sector, no one is prepared to jump first,” she says. “We’re just about to go into production with an inclusive glass holder, but finding a backer is hard work. The disability market is littered with SMEs who are parochial, and the investment world is looking for a larger player.”

But things are changing. Liz Jackson, founder and president of the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC), the first ever fashion trade association for people with disabilities, insists that large companies are helping to make the market more accessible for small businesses.

“Within the disability market we have started to build cultural capital amongst ourselves and elevate our voice,” she says. “Historically what we lacked was a sense of being proven, so it was tough to get investors interested. As large companies sign up to inclusivity, it makes what the small companies are doing more investible.”

Jackson is passionate about making inclusive design a thing of beauty. Five years ago she was diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition that left having to wear glasses and use a cane. “There was so much choice with eyeglasses, but none with the cane, and I struggled with this,” she says.

This dichotomy of the functional but highly fashionable eyewear and unattractive cane ultimately led her to launch the IFDC to support designers and retailers making and selling fashionable products for people with disabilities. Jackson, who is based in New York and writes a blog called The Girl with the Purple Cane, has also been campaigning to get US clothing chain J Crew to stock stylish walking canes.

“We are speaking to businesses and inviting large corporations to invest, and through our foundation, we will provide grants to people and companies with ideas for products that people need and want,” she says.

Demand for equipment for people with a disability has soared in the UK in recent years. Sales have risen by 92.6% over the last decade, while the total market size grew by 9.2% last year, according to CandM Research.

Basingstoke-based SME Blatchford creates prosthetics, including the Linx, an intelligent prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot; a system in which the parts work together like a human leg. Founded in 1890, the family firm also provides prosthetic, orthotic and other rehabilitation services.

Stephen Blatchford, the executive chairman of prosthetics firm Blatchford.
Stephen Blatchford, the executive chairman of prosthetics firm Blatchford. Photograph: Hype photography

Blatchford’s products division turns over £30m a year, yet is considered a small player in the sector, 10 times smaller than the largest company in the sector, and five times smaller than the second largest firm. After a period of consolidation in the industry, competition is fiercer than ever. To succeed alongside much larger market leaders Blatchford has adopted a number of strategies.

Stephen Blatchford, the executive chairman, says: “We focus on innovation, only developing products that we can see a clear market for and which play to our technological strengths,” he says. Last year the company was awarded one of the UK’s most prestigious engineering prizes, the MacRobert Award, for the Linx.

For those just starting up in the disability products and service sector, there are websites offering help and support, including the Business Disability Forum and Disability Grants.

The recent appointment of 11 disability sector champions by the Department for Work and Pensions to promote accessibility in business sectors including banking, tourism, retail and public transport further highlights the business opportunities presented by greater inclusivity.

“Twenty years ago companies saw sustainability as a differentiator,” says Waite. “It’s no longer a differentiator; it is expected, and we are now seeing that happen with inclusion, and that is great news for innovative businesses.”

 

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