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A few minutes into our call, Sumaira Latif, Accessibility Leader at Procter & Gamble, pauses our conversation to answer a phone call from her son. He is calling her from school, and she worries in case it’s an emergency. When we continue our discussion, Latif tells me that it was when she had children that she started noticing all the ways in which she was being affected by products that were not designed for people with disabilities.

“When I became a mum, I started looking at so many things and realizing that, actually, my whole life, everything I do- products, systems, machines- impact me as a blind person,” she says. She was working in the IT department at P&G, where she pushed to make digital content more accessible for disabled people. But then she began to realize that it was not only technology that needed to change to meet the needs of consumers with disabilities; the same needed to be done for physical products, such as the packaging that people navigate in their everyday lives. And this became her mission: to bring to P&G the experience of the disabled consumer.

In 2015, Latif launched the People with Disabilities Network (PWD)- a community for disabled employees and allies at P&G- outside of North America, where it had previously been based. But, she tells me, her aim was not to do this only “with paper and words”. That is why, drawing from her own experience and the lived experiences of people with other disabilities, Latif created the Disabilities Challenge. She wanted her colleagues to experience what it was like trying to access the packaging used by P&G brands as someone who cannot see the packaging and its contents, or whose hands are stiff and weakened by a condition like arthritis.

“I decided to launch the People with Disabilities Network (PWD) in a way that really opens the hearts and minds of people, and I got people to experience what it was like to use our products, to use our offices when you had a disability,” she tells me. “I got people to wear glasses that simulate a variety of sight conditions, and I got them to use a wheelchair and try and get around our offices, and then I got them to wear the arthritic gloves that restrict the movement in your hands and said: ‘Okay, let’s open a pack of Pampers’ or ‘Can you open our Head & Shoulders bottle?’.” Through the challenge, Latif demonstrated the reality that so many experience, but that the company had not previously addressed. “It was something they hadn’t ever thought about,” she says.

If you are an able-bodied person, it is easy to forget about the realities of living with a disability. But when faced with the daily difficulties encountered by disabled consumers, Latif explains that people acknowledged they had to do more in this area. “When I noticed the reaction- the human reaction- of people…it gave me the encouragement to keep going with this,” Latif says. “And, eventually, I was able to do this same challenge with our CEO and his leadership team, and got the same kind of reaction, but not only that: I got the permission to switch from doing IT as my day job to doing accessibility as my day job.”

Up until this point, when P&G had thought about the consumer that they were designing for, they thought of a young, able-bodied mother. “But we started thinking,” Latif tells me, “what if we put someone with a disability in the centre, and realise what their frustrations are- the problems that they need to overcome when they interact with our products- and then we can actually make products that will be great for everybody.”

Tactile help

During the challenge, Latif also gave participants bottles with and without tactile indicators. The experiment was meant to determine whether raised symbols on the packaging would enable someone with sight loss to tell apart shampoo and conditioner in the shower. Tactile indicators were used instead of Braille to enable a wide range of consumers to benefit from this innovation, since less than 10% of blind people are able to read Braille. When they were given one bottle with shampoo and stripes to indicate what it was, and the other bottle with circles to show that it contained conditioner, the participants were able to tell the two bottles apart.

Latif tells me that “75% of people wear contacts, or glasses or have some kind of issue with their sight,” adding that “most people will not be taking their corrective eyewear into the shower”. And for someone who has no sight, she says that it is impossible to tell apart shampoo from conditioner, which is why consumers often use “compensating behaviour” by finding methods on their own to tell products apart; for example, by putting elastic bands around one bottle and not the other.

“My vision was to find something that would be simple, and would enable a large variety of people  to distinguish shampoo from conditioner- because we’ve got 75% of the population that struggle in the shower- so that’s what we did: we used laser etching in our Herbal Essences brand in North America,” she says. “It was difficult finding a solution, but when we found that, we were instantly able to put the tactile stripes and the tactile circles on the bottles.”

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And although Latif and her team did not know what response to expect from the blind consumers, the feedback that they received was overwhelmingly positive. “I went personally to a lot of conferences in America, and I would show what we’re doing, and the reaction that we got from consumers was really tear-jerking,” Latif tells me. “You would see the emotion in them, and these are their words: ‘we can’t believe a company like P&G is thinking of someone like me’. She adds that the tactile indicators were addressing a need that had previously gone unmet for people in the blind community.

Enabling consumers to shop independently

Everything from shopping in the supermarket to using products once they are in the home is more difficult for disabled consumers because products are simply not designed with their needs in mind. Often, this means that they need the help of other people to do basic everyday tasks- such as going grocery shopping- denying them the independence that is so readily afforded to able-bodied people. NaviLens is a colourful QR code that could help address some of the obstacles that blind or partially sighted people face when going grocery shopping. Consumers point their smartphone devices in the direction of a pack containing the code, and all the information about the product is read out to them in a coherent manner through the app.

Used to help people navigate public transport systems and recently launched on Kellog’s cereal boxes, P&G haircare brand Pantene will adopt the QR code on selected lines to enable consumers with sight loss to shop more independently. The brand is also working with blind influencer Lucy Edwards to highlight the impact of hair on how you feel, rather than how you look. “As blind people, we’re very sensitive to touch, and we can feel that straw-like hair, and we can feel it after when it’s soft, so she’s bringing that whole message to life,” Latif tells me. “NaviLens is a game-changer, but not many people will know about it because it’s a new technology,” she adds, “so, we need to bring the blind community with us and say, ‘hey, guys, you need to try this, this is cool, this will change your life’.”

Currently, Latif is also working to create a universal tactile language- building on the symbols used for the Herbal Essences bottles- that could be used across the industry to make everyday products easy to access once they are in people’s homes. “We will gift it to other manufacturers so that everyone can use this language just like every manufacturer today has the word ‘shampoo’ and the word ‘conditioner’ on their bottle- these are universal words, a universal language; we’ll have the universal tactile equivalents,” she said. “It’s a big vision.”

Latif explains that it is crucial for the industry to collaborate in addressing the issue of inaccessible design. For blind people, she says that this means improving product identification, and including “bigger, bolder words with good contrast” on packaging for partially sighted people, which would also make products easier to navigate for those with cognitive challenges and learning difficulties. “We need to really make it simple, not complex: fewer words, take it easy, use visuals that make sense, and don’t expect people to connect the dots,” she says. And it is also important to consider how easy it is to open packaging for those who struggle with strength and dexterity, and whether excessive packaging and labelling makes this more difficult.

“The whole packaging industry needs to come together and recognise that people have problems accessing simple things like a bag of peas, because it’s something that we use day in, day out,” she tells me. “It’s not even once a week; people have challenges every day,” she adds, “and the thing is, we haven’t got the energy to complain, either, because there’s so many daily troubles that you’re solving that it’s not on the top of my list to write to a company and say I’m having trouble telling the difference between full-fat and low-fat milk, which I do have.”

But it is encouraging that the industry is already coming together to recognize and begin addressing some of the accessibility issues that consumers face with packaging. She tells me that in 2020, Herbal Essences won an award from the Packaging Consortium (PAC) for their bottles with tactile indicators, and that this year, Kellog’s also won an award from PAC for their Coco Pops boxes with the NaviLens code. “What was really fun was the fact that Kellogg’s said that they were inspired by Herbal Essences,” she says. “It’s spiralling, because they did NaviLens- that in turn has inspired me again to put NaviLens on our Pantene.” She adds that being on the panel with PAC inspired the chairman of the consortium to start a project for accessible packaging. “It’s not just Sam at P&G anymore: there’s a whole group of us, and there’s a movement going,” she says.

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The future of accessibility in packaging

Research has shown that only 4% of companies are currently working on accessible design, Latif explains. She believes that there is incentive for this to change; not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes sense from a business perspective. “What we’ve found in our research is that, in fact, if the product is more accessible, people will be willing to pay a premium for it,” she says. “If something improves my quality of life, I will buy it.” Even people who are in the lower income bracket would be willing to pay more for a product that really improves their quality of life. “Remember,” she tells me, “people with disabilities have so many problems to solve every day- more than able-bodied people- so they welcome something [that simplifies their life].”

The issue of accessibility receives considerably less time and consideration than that of sustainability in the industry today, but the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they could be seen as essential to each other. Except, whereas sustainability has become a problem so central it is impossible to ignore, being unable to open and use packaging is something that people struggle with alone, often too tired to even raise it as an issue. But, as Latif tells me, this might be a good opportunity to design packaging that is both good for the environment and for consumers with disabilities. “If you think about sustainability, we may have to make new bottles with less plastic, lightweight bottles, we might have to use more sustainable products- every company does,” she says. “This is a good opportunity because, as we’re making our new bottles, we can we put in the moulds the tactile symbols, so we don’t have to go back and make any changes again.”

Involving disabled consumers in the design process

When creating new products, companies also need to ensure that the voices of disabled people are not excluded from the development process. This could mean consulting an internal network of disabled employees or turning to the community to gain insights into how a brand can improve their packaging to address the issues faced by consumers. Latif tells me that at P&G they often consult their network of disabled employees and employees with disabled family members. Having such a network is useful for when a company needs the feedback of disabled consumers but is either not ready to share the product with people from the community or needs the feedback to be delivered quickly. But, as she explains, they also have connections with people in the community and partnerships with organizations, which enable them to collect feedback from disabled people outside the company as well.

Having an internal network depends on having employees with disabilities in the first place, and, as Latif tells me, this has not always been the case in companies. “I think the more people we hire into the packaging industry with a disability, the better we’ll shape that packaging industry to make it more accessible,” she says. “Let’s enable them to be their authentic selves and value the insights that their disability is bringing when it comes to packaging,” she adds. “We need to continue to talk to real consumers with disabilities and understand the problems that they experience with packaging, and bring these insights to the decision makers, bring these insights to designers- to every function, really, in a company- so that they can open their hearts and minds and create something that’s more accessible, versus what we have today.”