There are 13.9 million people living with limiting long-term illness or disability in the UK. They are the UK’s fastest growing minority group, accounting for 1 in 5 people with a combined spending power of £249 billion. Yet despite its economic power, the disability community is chronically underrepresented and underserved.
Inequality is at the root of disability. Inequality of opportunity and inequality of access. Access to services and to the quality and selection of products that disabled people deserve. This is, in part, the result of a lack of awareness and understanding among businesses about what disabled people want and require.
In the last few years the tide has started to turn and the power of the so-called “purple pound” has become impossible to ignore. Businesses and entrepreneurs are beginning to recognise and tap into this lucrative market and are reaping the benefits.
In November, disability organisation Purple arranged theUK’s first accessible shopping day. Leading retailers and businesses such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Barclays took part in 'Purple Tuesday', promoting the benefits of making shops, restaurants, pubs and clubs accessible to all.
To celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the government recently announced that it is to appoint six new disability champions to promote inclusivity to businesses and tackle some of the issues disabled people face as consumers. Their focus will be on six key sectors including fashion, technology and product design, and they will join 11 existing disability champions, appointed by the Department for Works and Pensions in 2017.
This follows the UK’s first global disability summit which took place in July, bringing together more than 1,000 delegates from governments, private sector organisations and charities to discuss ways countries around the world can work together to tackle discrimination and a lack of practical support experienced by the disability community.
Why celebrating and supporting innovation is good for business
New awards such as the Disability-Smart Awards now exist to celebrate the most innovative and inclusive practices among employers and service providers, while challenge prizes such as those run by Nesta are also helping to raise awareness and champion innovation.
Back in 2014, we, Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, launched the Inclusive Technology Prize, which encouraged innovation in products, technologies and systems that enable disabled people to have equal access to life's opportunities. Through the 200+ applications we got a glimpse of how assistive tools and inventive ideas could be utilised to help disabled people lead the lives they want to live. Stand out innovations included 3D printed bionic hands for amputees, which are up to 20 times cheaper than traditional injection moulded bionic limbs.
The winning innovation was a screen-based tool by Open Voice Factory, which gives people with communication difficulties the ability to select the word they want from icons representing words, which are then spoken out loud by the device. This free open source assistive communication technology can be run on any platform, from tablets to laptops and phones, making it easily accessible to everyone.
It’s by running challenge prizes such as these that we can raise awareness of opportunities linked to the ‘purple pound’ as well as support and incentivise the next generation of designers and entrepreneurs to push the boundaries of available technologies to create innovations that truly have the ability to transform lives. And it’s not only prizes that have the power to do this; the mentoring and support offered by a diverse range of programmes, incubators and accelerators across the UK can be invaluable for early-stage businesses and product innovators.
The nature of challenge prizes means that the efforts of businesses and entrepreneurs can be focused on areas in need of more solutions, from products to services. Challenge prizes build in the support that businesses and entrepreneurs need, whether its funding or help with product development and business models, as well as set requirements to ensure success. For example, we can require businesses and entrepreneurs to fully and meaningfully engage with their potential customers, disabled people, to ensure that their wants, needs and requirements are being met. The kind of engagement that is often, unacceptably, lacking.
Nurturing of this kind has the potential to have a huge impact on the economy, helping more game-changing products get to market. The growth of the ‘purple pound’ has the potential to transform how businesses and entrepreneurs respond to disabled people as customers and consumers. We’re using challenge prizes to help make sure that this happens.