A move by a Canadian chocolate maker to produce packaging for blind and partially sighted people is one of several campaigns this year by companies trying to make their products more accessible to people with disabilities (PWD).
Purdys Chcolatier created a holiday box of chocolates this Christmas with both a braille label and a braille legend for the chocolates inside.
"When it first launched online and in select shops, it sold out within a matter of hours," Julia Cho, the brand's marketing manager, said from its Vancouver factory.
"I know the box is not perfect and we have so much to learn, but to me, it encourages me that this is a step in the right direction."
The company, which has 80 stores across Canada, rushed to produce more braille boxes, and Cho says another run will come in the new year.
'There is a lot of work to be done'
Some big-name companies put a spotlight on inclusive products and packages in 2021, says Christina Mallon, the head of inclusive design and accessibility at Wunderman Thompson, a creative agency in New York City.
"There is a trend towards inclusive product design, and I see that in 2022, it's going to get even larger," said Mallon, whose clients include the fashion label Tommy Hilfiger, tech giant Microsoft and consumer goods brand Unilever.
Still, Mallon, who is disabled, says the movement is painfully small, compared to the needs of the PWD community.
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"There is a lot of work to be done," she said.
According to Statistics Canada, 6.2 million people, or roughly one in five Canadians, have a disability. About 1.5 million of them identify as having sight loss.
Purdys designed its braille box and legend in consultation with members of the blind and partially sighted community. The National Federation of the Blind in the United States estimates that only one in 10 blind people can read braille.
"This is rare to find braille on a product," said John Rae, a retired Toronto man who has been blind for most of his adult life. He says he was happy to be able to buy a braille box.
"Many products or services are not constructed or built with blind people in mind."
An online video from the company features emotional reactions from members of the community to the box.
Companies adopting inclusive design
When it comes to packaging, creating more inclusive or accessible designs has several elements.
"It's ensuring that you can easily open the packaging. And then it's ensuring that you can easily manipulate the product to make it work," Mallon explained. "And that's ensuring that easy grip, easy tear, open, perforated edges; ensuring that someone with a visual impairment can actually identify the product."
Mallon, who has paralysis in both arms, has struggled as a consumer with packaging and difficult-to-handle products, as well as with clothing.
Her personal experiences helped her guide Unilever through creating a more accessible design for its deodorant brand Degree.
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Earlier this year, a new container for Degree was tested with 200 Americans who have disabilities.
Online videos from the company show athletic people with disabilities using the product. A more informational video shows the container's hook-shaped cap, ergonomic bottom grip, braille labelling and large applicator.
A team of experts, including Mallon, and others with disabilities were part of the design process.
Unilever has not announced when the product will be launched, but Procter & Gamble is selling Oil of Olay face creams with an "easy open lid" online.
The company also did not patent the design and published it on the internet so other manufacturers could use it.
Some beauty brands have been providing forms of accessible packaging for years.
L'Occitane started putting braille on its packages in 1997.
Canadian social media influencer Molly Burke, who is blind, has critiqued the packaging of a number of beauty products in online videos.
Much more work needed to create change
There are signs of progress in packaging design in other industries, too.
Kellogg's tested a more accessible QR code design this year to help partially sighted customers identify products and get information about them.
Microsoft created easy-to-open packaging for its Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Mallon celebrates these high-profile efforts but says people with disabilities are still all too often low-priority customers.
"I've been doing this for about seven years," she said. "And I can name all the accessible products and the mainstream brands on both of my hands."
People with disabilities are a huge market
Mallon points out that people with disabilities are a huge market.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 15 per cent of the world's population, or about 1.1 billion people, identify as having some form of disability. WHO says this makes people with disabilities the world's largest minority group.
Return on Disability, a Canadian research and advocacy firm, found that the number of people with disabilities around the world represents an emerging market the size of China plus the European Union, with $1.9 trillion in disposable income every year.
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Add to that estimate an aging population in many counties, which will mean more consumers with disabilities in the future.
Yet Mallon says she still encounters company executives with doubts about the value of this market.
"I think some brands are still hesitant because they believe that it's still a niche market that doesn't have the money," she said.
Peter Athanasopoulos agrees that doubting the disabled shopper is a mistake.
He suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident as a teenager and has limited use of his fingers.
Today he's the director of public policy for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and lives independently in Bluewater, Ont.
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He says people with disabilities are excellent customers for companies that make their products and packages easier for them to use.
"I become super loyal when I see a company doing that. When I find something that works, I stick to it," Athanasopoulos said. "So there's a value for that company."
He also thinks that it's time for companies to pick up the pace of change. "Are they getting better fast enough? I would say not."
Young designers being taught inclusivity
At design schools across the country, the product and packaging designers of the future are being taught to bring the values of inclusivity and accessibility into their work, says Donna Saccutelli.
Saccutelli, a graphic design professor at Seneca College in Toronto, helped the school launch a targeted Inclusive Design for Business program just six months ago.
The 120 spots in it filled up quickly.
Saccutelli said that "there's been a lack of awareness in companies with decision-makers" about accessible design.
Now, she's training designers to think about inclusivity as being just as important as environmental sustainability.
"Where the world is today, we need to be doing that."