Thinking inclusively as a brand sounds easy enough. Yet for the majority of companies out there, inclusion is an afterthought, often triggered by a PR scandal or public shaming on social media. Many brands don’t think proactively about making their products and services accessible to those who live with a disability. On this World Sight Day, it’s important to remember that globally, there are 43 million people who are blind and 295 million people who are visually impaired (including myself). And for those of us who cannot rely 100% on our vision, it’s nice to “see” that some companies are more visionary than others.
Today, consumer health giant Haleon announced a partnership with Microsoft to make its health products more accessible to the blind and visually impaired (the companies shared both a written and audio press release). Microsoft’s Seeing AI app now allows users to scan the barcode of Haleon products to get information about ingredients and usage instructions delivered via an audio feature. The free app works on over 1,500 Haleon products across the UK and US, including Sensodyne, Centrum, Panadol and Advil.
“People who are blind, visually impaired or struggling to read for other reasons should be able to access the same information as everyone else”, says Haleon’s global chief marketing officer, Tamara Rogers. “Enabling people to access vital information on our health products in audio format is one of our first cross-brand initiatives to help level the playing field and make everyday health more inclusive.”
Earlier this year, Haleon commissioned an independent study that surveyed 500+ visually impaired individuals in the UK. 93% of respondents said that they don’t feel health products are accessible enough, and 1 in 5 said that they’ve taken the wrong dosage as they couldn’t see what was on the package clearly.
Be My Eyes
A company that has been instrumental in helping the visually impaired with things like reading product labels is Be My Eyes. The app connects blind and partially sighted people with volunteers via a live video feature to assist users with daily tasks, such as checking expiry dates, distinguishing colours and reading instructions. There are currently more than 6 million volunteers on the app across 150 countries. In 2019, the company partnered with Clearblue to help visually impaired women regain control over their reproductive health. Users can now access the Clearblue Careline through Be My Eyes and receive their pregnancy or fertility test results right away from a Clearblue Advisor.
While helping the blind and visually impaired with shopping and manual work is vital, there are instances when disabled individuals would rather not seek another pair of eyes – in the bedroom, for example.
An up-and-coming sexual wellness brand that baked inclusivity into its DNA from the start is Roam. The London-based startup makes all-natural products that include condoms and lubricants for both the front and the back. In addition to being sexually inclusive, the brand also made sure that it’s accessible to the disabled community.
“We hear a lot about tokenistic inclusivity,” said Roam co-founder and chief creative officer Alex Griffiths. “It felt disingenuous to say that we want to provide a choice to customers and make them feel visible while ignoring people who are often forgotten.”
The founders thought long and hard about disability inclusivity when creating their products, adding braille writing on the sides and designing square-edged lubes to prevent the bottles from rolling if dropped.
Griffiths says that from a manufacturing perspective, printing braille on all products was incredibly difficult and expensive, requiring multiple additional production processes and special packaging.
“It is also incredibly difficult to access reliable information for braille,” he says. “We worked with the RNIB as well as with a braille translator but it’s hard to proofread and the risk for error becomes incredibly high throughout the supply chain.”
Despite the added costs, the number of consumer brands that include braille to their products has been slowly widening over the years. L’Occitane is one of the trailblazers in the space, adding braille to as many of its product packaging as possible (it is technically challenging to include braille on the smaller products). The brand’s Foundation made the fight against avoidable blindness one of its key priorities when it launched in 2006, partnering with various NGOs around the world. L’Occitane says it supports screening, treatment and eye surgery projects, as well as the funding of equipment and medical staff training. In 2022, the brand and its Foundation reached their goal of 15 million eye care beneficiaries.
Procter & Gamble’s Herbal Essences underwent a total redesign for the packaging of its Bio:Renew line of botanical shampoos and conditioners in 2019. Under the guidance of Sam Latif, P&G’s accessibility leader (who is blind), tactile markers were added to the shampoo and conditioner bottles to help individuals easily differentiate between the two. While the shampoo bottles have raised stripes, the conditioners use raised dots.
With industry leaders like L’Occtiane and Herbal Essences setting a new standard for inclusive design and accessibility, it’s not surprising that newer, edgier brands also follow suit. Music artist and producer Pharrell Williams included braille writing on his skincare products for his Humanrace line, which launched in 2020. On the digital side, skincare startup Topicals has an accessibility widget on its website and recently launched a text reader program through its accessibility tab using EqualWeb. This also allows users to increase text size and hear image descriptions, among other features.
Making Alt Text Edgy
Image descriptions have a key role in making online content more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. According to Internet Live Stats, over 63 million images were uploaded to Instagram alone in a single day in February. Therefore describing to a low vision person what they can’t see is vital when sharing an image. This is done via alt text (or alternative text), which is usually embedded in a web page’s HTML code so that screen readers can access the information and translate it into a format that users can interact with, like audio. So instead of having “Image 1” or “jpg” read to them, users get a full description like “A brown dog is sitting in front of a red house”.
On Instagram, people can include the description of the image they are sharing in the caption accompanying it, making image descriptions visible to others (versus alt text, which is hidden as it is embedded in the image). Disabilities activists like Sinéad Burke and Selma Blair both include image descriptions when sharing images on their accounts. This will hopefully normalize the practice and encourage others to do it.
Artists Shannon Finnegan and Bojana Coklyat (who has low vision) are striving to make alt text more creative and playful through their project Alt Text as Poetry.
On the website, they state:
“Alt text is an essential part of web accessibility. It is often disregarded or understood through the lens of compliance, as an unwelcome burden to be met with minimum effort. How can we instead approach alt text thoughtfully and creatively?”
The artists encourage people to think about words and language in an experimental spirit when writing alt text or image descriptions, drawing inspiration from the world of poetry. And that’s really the key when trying to make accessibility edgier: from a lube with braille writing to a poetry-inspired alt text, we all need to think about accessibility creatively in order to normalize it and make it a part of our everyday lives.