Including Disability to Drive Innovation

As a short statured person, even prior to my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome diagnosis, I knew I lived in a world that was not built for me. I’m just shy of 4'10". I’ve lived a life of climbing counters, scaling shelves and getting skipped over in line at the coffee shop, with the patron behind me gesturing kindly downward to indicate that there is, indeed, a person in front of them. I’m no stranger to invisibility.

Recently, I had an amazing conversation with Alice Wong, a disability advocate and true amplifier of voices for the disability community. When I first joined Twitter and was trying to spread the word about my Kickstarter campaign for a product I designed, she magically appeared and helped me spread the word. When we met in person, she pointed out that disability-driven design seems so natural — after all, those of us with disabilities are constantly engaging with and creatively working around a world that was built without our consideration.

Designers often talk about designing for the 90%, meaning the majority of potential users. The global population of folks living with disabilities is around 10–15%. I believe this is not a coincidence — the same folks are often excluded from design time and time again.

When we first designed the Keela Cup, it was very much born from my particular challenges with using a menstrual cup. However, it didn’t take much searching to realize that my problems were an escalated version of a very basic and common problem and many users had found their own hacks for making it work. The problem was, these solutions didn’t work for me and many others. Without innovation, this solution would continue to be an exclusive option.

Photo source: https://blog.bolt.io/yona-5fb04879bb1e

What I’ve learned from leveraging my disability as a tool for design is that it’s inarguably a smarter way to design. If we can solve for problems that create a barrier to access for some people, we can improve the product experience for everyone else, too. With the example I know and understand very well (menstrual cups) I can tell you that many users, able-bodied and otherwise, have ended up in the ER to have them taken out. Just imagine that for a moment: trying a new product that you are excited about, it gets stuck, you panic, you rush to the ER. What kind of experience is that? Users face such a steep learning curve with this product that the initial experience understandably hinders them from trying again.

That and, reading and hearing of these stories prevents more folks from giving cups a chance. Only 2% of the menstruating population has tried a menstrual cup. If we can produce a truly easier to use version of this product, which I confidently can say we have, I firmly believe we can expand usership. In an era where more people are being attentive to reducing disposable plastic waste, it’s the perfect time to switch from tampon applicators, disposable plastic pads, and every inconvenience that comes with those choices. The majority of folks who use cups wish they had discovered them sooner. Now it’s time to loop in the remaining minority who haven’t had that same great experience.