We explore the issue of style in the independent living sector
No one can deny that the function of a product is critical in the independent living sector. A daily living aid or piece of mobility equipment that doesn’t perform to its expected standards can result in disastrous consequences for the user. But with functionality being such a major priority, in many cases the styling of the product is sadly overlooked.
Fiona Jarvis is the founder of Blue Badge Style, a website that makes recommendations on style and accessibility. Having been diagnosed with MS over 20 years ago, it was Fiona’s own personal experiences as a wheelchair user in London that inspired her to create the website, as she refused to give up being stylish because of her reduced mobility. From finding cool, accessible restaurants for meetings with business clients, to seeking out equipment that doesn’t clash with the interior design of her home, Fiona has consistently been left frustrated by the lack of options out there and she is not alone.
Launched in November 2012, the Blue Badge Style website and accompanying app offer a forum for visitors to discuss and recommend accessible accommodation, holidays, restaurants and activities, as well as the latest style innovations in interior design, products and fashion. Users submit reviews and articles to make others aware of the places, products and ideas they have discovered.
“Research we conducted suggests that 70% of people would pay extra for something that looks good,” Fiona explained.
She added: “If you think about being disabled and perhaps spending most of your time at home, you want to be surrounded by things that don’t offend you.”
Of course, style is all around us. From the clothes we wear, to the way we decorate our homes, we use style to express our personalities and tastes, but for many disabled individuals, a lack of choice is restricting their ability to do this.
“Lots of products are designed well but they just look horrible. Nothing springs to mind as being good to look at and fit for purpose. There are lots of concept designs out there that look brilliant but no manufacturers seem to want to develop these,” Fiona said.
A lack of style is an argument that has often been levelled at the independent living sector, with criticisms such as ‘clinical looking’ and ‘dated’ being the comments most commonly directed at product design. However, we have recently seen the emergence of a number of companies making style a priority, and with great success.
“One of the reasons for wanting to set up and pursue Blue Badge Company was that I was really disappointed with the products that were available. Anyone who had any kind of mobility impairment was being offered clinical and dull products. I just thought we can do better than this,” explained Ellen Green, managing director of Blue Badge Company.
“Everyone likes to have nice, attractive things, so why would it be any different for someone with a disability, condition or ailment? Our success demonstrates that people want more choice and control when it comes to buying and using assistive products. That means offering customers products that say more about style than disability,” Ellen said.
With style at the heart of the business’ ethos, Ellen and her team at Blue Badge Company have been praised for their stunning range of living aids and accessories, winning contracts with the Post Office and Boots among others. Their product range includes Blue Badge wallets, wheat hand warmers, travel card holders and lap trays in a variety of attractive materials.
“This market is going the same way the baby industry has, which redefined itself in response to growing consumer demand for stylish and well-designed products. Now these Baby Boomers want products that accommodate their changing physical and sensory capabilities and they don’t want them in beige!” Ellen added.
“In 2011 the Office for Fair Trading estimated that the current value of the UK sector for mobility aids is between £430m and £510m, and that there are potentially over 4.3 million mobility aids users in the UK. As the average age of the population increases, the use of mobility aids will also increase. I think we will see more innovation, design and growth of attractive living aids in the next few years than we have in last few decades! Which ultimately is very positive, for us, for the retailers and most importantly for the customers.”
Healthcare Designed Ltd have also brought a fresh array of products to the UK marketplace. Their product range, which includes the likes of folding walking sticks, walking frames and waterproof bedding is available in three attractive designs and has proved very popular with retailers.
Managing director Nicky Pearson explained: “There is currently a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude within the market which is depressing and disheartening to all who need the products. Products available are dreary and old and leave the customer or recipient feeling flat and frustrated with having to use home aids that fulfil their purpose but provide no joy.
“We have designed and developed our health and home care solutions to completely revolutionise the market. Replacing the old-fashioned, dated and boring alternatives with choices. Offering functionality with beauty. We want our customers to feel that they can leave the products in the range where they can be seen.
“We need to give customers confidence that we have selected products which improve their quality of life, not just with functionality but with the effort being made to make the products look as beautiful as possible.”
Like Blue Badge Style, it was personal experience that inspired the inception of designed2enable, an online retailer that aims to offer aesthetically pleasing mobility aids, daily living aids and other accessories.
Business manager Katherine Pyne said: “Until recently, assistive products have generally been designed purely for function without much consideration for aesthetic design which has resulted in the products having a sterile, medical look and feel. This can have a detrimental effect on the user of these products, almost labelling the person as old or infirm or disabled by association which can have a negative impact on the user’s state of mind and how they see themselves.
“At designed2enable, we have personal experience of disability and recognise that if a product has a medical look and feel about it, you are less likely to want to use it because of the stigma attached to it. Many of our customers, who are buying for their parents say that they struggle to get their parent to use a walking frame or rollator as they refuse to be seen in public with one as they look so dowdy. They come to us, trying to find something that looks fun and funky in the hope that their parent will be happy to use it, which then in turn improves their parent’s independence and quality of life. We are passionate about changing the perception of assistive products and feel that they should be given the same consideration in their design as any other product.”
An increase in the number of manufacturers offering more stylish products is ultimately of benefit to end users who will benefit from an increase in choice, as seen in other industries, as Katherine explained: “Opticians are a great example of positive change. Until fairly recently glasses were really unexciting and people resisted wearing them because they felt embarrassed by how they looked. In the last few years however, this industry has become big business; all due to the fact that they are now designed to be stylish and in many cases are worn as a fashion statement. Customers and the industry have benefitted as more people are buying glasses because they are happy to wear them, perhaps buying a few pairs to co-ordinate with different outfits; a win-win situation! These days, many people seem happy to pay a reasonable price for a jumper, so why not a stylish cane that co-ordinates with your outfit, which also works as a fashion statement? Hopefully, the mobility industry can catch up and move with the times and inject some fun and style into what we do.”
Are we seeing the beginning of a style revolution in the independent living sector? Let us know your thoughts, email firstname.lastname@example.org.