Skin-care giant Olay recently released a face-cream lid ostensibly designed to be “accessible for all,” the latest iteration of consumer goods positioned to serve disabled people.
Olay announced its limited-edition lid prototype developed for “consumers with a wide range of conditions, from dexterity issues and limb differences, to chronic issues causing joint pain and vision impairments,” with fanfare. To publicize the new packaging, it launched an ad campaign including video and a lush multi-page advertisement in the Sunday print edition of The New York Times
The easy-open lid includes four features: a winged cap, extra grip-raised lid, a high-contrast product label, and Braille text for “face cream.” It is designed to fit on four creams in Olay’s popular Regenerist line, and is available exclusively on the Olay website—not on store shelves.
Upon closer inspection, it’s clear this launch is more of a PR tactic than a genuine effort to make more accessible products—and Olay is far from the only brand to take that route. Inclusive design is not typically acknowledged as the marketing campaign that it often is. It is difficult to find a product created through an inclusive design process that has succeeded beyond its hype.
Adaptations to existing products and new flexible features are increasingly being launched by the largest corporations in the world. Nike, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble are among the companies that have launched “accessible” or “inclusive” products seemingly “for all.” Yet, important elements of these launches have consistently faltered.
According to the campaign, Olay’s design team incorporated insights from consumers “with a wide range of conditions” and met with external experts—including disabled journalist Madison Lawson—as well as team members with personal experiences to inform the making of the lid.
Despite this seemingly comprehensive outreach, disabled consumers have responded with skepticism. Emily Johnson, a tech and social media journalist, said in an interview that “most ‘accessible’ products aren’t about disabled consumers at all.” Rather, they’re a public relations strategy, used to retain the loyalty—and praise—of non-disabled consumers, and frequently fail to consider disabled consumers as an audience in brand messaging. For instance, the Olay print ad was shared online without alt-text, thus barring blind and low-vision consumers from fully accessing information about it. Johnson also points out that the wing caps don’t differ in shape or size, preventing consumers from differentiating between the four Olay jars it fits by touch.
More puzzling is the Braille text, which is limited to the cap. Only a fraction of legally blind people actually know how to read Braille, and there are other, potentially more useful ways to convey information. “I could scan the barcode with my phone and get much more specific information than ‘face cream,'” said Elizabeth Hare, a blind scientist who also works on accessibility in STEM and uses screen-reading software. As with Braille, however, it can be tricky for many blind and low-vision people to locate a QR code or barcode, which shows the challenge of claiming the universality of this or any other accessibility feature.
It is interesting that Olay chose to print “face cream” in Braille, given what another Procter & Gamble subsidiary, Herbal Essences, did in 2018. They chose to differentiate shampoo and conditioner bottles with raised stripes and dots after learning from a focus group how few people know Braille today. Olay’s use of Braille reads as an empty gesture; as Johnson notes, “labeling different products with the same label and no details in Braille is useless.”
What does Braille communicate if it’s not actually informative? Perhaps that Olay’s winged lid fails to effectively symbolize disability, so it incorporates Braille as a way to visually demonstrate its commitment to inclusion.
Limited edition for all?
Olay’s brand line, “open for all,” is typical of how disability-centric designs are pitched and sold to the public. The moniker “for all” does two things: first, it signals to industry by aligning the brand with the virtues of inclusive design. “For all” has become shorthand for the inclusive design mantra “solve for one, extend to many.” Second, it inspires consumers, who have learned to associate the language of “for all” with corporate diversity and inclusion narratives.
It is disingenuous to claim an accessible product is “for all” when its distribution channels are less accessible than those for the mainstream product. And yet, inclusively designed objects tend to get released as limited editions through select channels—like how Olay is only available on its website and not on store shelves.
In 2019, Lego announced Braille Bricks, created for blind and low-vision children. Rather than making Braille Bricks commercially available, Lego limited the release to qualifying institutions. American Printing House, the U.S. distribution partner for Braille Bricks, said in an email that Lego aimed to ensure that these kits remained with schools and educators, so “they won’t end up dusty on a shelf at home or with collectors.”
Lego’s concerns about collectors were later echoed by Nike, which released limited quantities of its Go FlyEase sneakers, rendering the accessible shoe inaccessible to disabled consumers, especially when it appeared on the resale market for upwards of $3,000.
Some product announcements aren’t even accompanied by a limited release. Degree Inclusive’s so-called “world’s first adaptive deodorant” touted features for users with limited sight or arm mobility, including a hooked grip, magnetic closures, a large roll-on applicator, and Braille on the packaging. Despite its cross-platform announcement, the product still has not come to market. This case raises concerns about how brand launches of accessible products serve as public relations strategies to elevate the image of the company, rather than making any tangible corporate and cultural changes for disability inclusion.
How can products that are supposedly designed with disabled people, for disabled people, continue to so profoundly miss the mark?
Olay said that the company “met with consumers with a wide range of conditions,” leaving us wondering how meeting with disabled consumers materially differs from the focus group Herbal Essences cited in 2018. What, if anything, has changed about how P&G consults with and compensates disabled experts? (Olay and P&G did not respond to requests for an interview or to answer questions via email.) If brands can no longer claim to design “with” diabled people and cite focus groups as central to that process, what are they doing instead?
In the case of Unilever’s Degree Adaptive, it credited “disabled co-collaborators” in its process—a group assigned “hyphen-status.” It’s a distinction that harkens back to an NCAA status coined in 1964: “student-athlete.” This term made student-athletes exempt from employment provisions, including workers’ compensation. For those designated with hyphen-status, the title following the hyphen lacks validity, reflecting the power imbalances within inclusive design—leading to failed outputs such as the notorious “disability dongle.”
For the “co-designer” or “user-expert,” the knowledge of the disabled expert is diminished by the hyphen. People who tend to get relegated to hyphen-status have an important role to play in creating equitable design, because they are more inclined to have a political, rather than corporate orientation to disability. These are folks who answer to their communities rather than conveying brand-approved messaging.
No product is truly going to succeed beyond its hype until brands begin to recognize the power imbalances embedded in inclusive design processes. Corporations will not be incentivized to do this until consumers begin asking where the expertise came from, and whom the output is intended to reach.
Liz Jackson is a disabled advocate, designer, and a founding member of The Disabled List, an advocacy collective that engages with disability as a critical design practice. Jaipreet Virdi is a disability historian, scholar, activist, and assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History.