Childcare products for all?

Lindsey Etchell describes a project to assess a range of mainstream childcare products for ease of use by disabled parents. She calls for better product design and a culture change towards inclusivity.

Ricability's three-year project – assessing five different, mainstream childcare products – has identified only a handful of models that can be easily used by parents with disabilities. Dozens of products – from feeding bottles to pushchairs – are unnecessarily difficult to use. When will mainstream baby product manufacturers start to design with all parents in mind?

The project

Ricability is an independent research charity producing information for disabled consumers. In 2002 Ricability, with help from DPPI and Disabled Parents Network, got funding from the Nuffield Foundation and the Department of Health to assess a range of mainstream childcare products for their ease of use by parents with disabilities.

Our project involved:

  • a postal survey of disabled parents to identify the products they most wanted buying advice on
  • a market research exercise for each priority product to identify the models and their features: we found around 70 baby carriers, 40 safety gates, 50 highchairs, 150 pushchairs, 10 bottle warmers, 20 sterilisers and hundreds of feeding bottles
  • an expert panel to help us identify representative models – including people from DPPI, DPN, other disability organisations, therapists and a child safety expert
  • a choice of assessment method: expert assessment of feeding products, home and out-and-about user trials of baby carriers and centre-based user trials of safety gates, highchairs and pushchairs
  • recruitment of testers: in total 125 disabled people, mostly parents, assessed products. They included people with limited manual dexterity, walking difficulties (ambulant people and wheelchair users) and people with partial or no sight
  • statistically designed user trials – essential to be fair to the products and to find significant differences among them.

The results of this research have been published as five Ricability buying guides. All are downloadable from our website or available by post for an A4 stamped addressed envelope (UK postage 47p for one copy, £1.48 for five; see left for contact details) and on audiocassette and in Braille.

What we found

The Ricability childcare guides are there to help parents with disabilities to choose products that are likely to suit their needs: see the reviews of some of the guides in issue numbers 41, 42 and 48 of this journal.

However, both Ricability and the disabled testers have been disappointed in the too wide range of features that hinder rather than help them to use childcare products. Our guides concentrate on what to look for. Here are lists of some of the features to avoid.

Baby carriers

  • fiddly fastenings – difficult and painful for arthritic hands
  • narrow shoulder straps – uncomfortable
  • heavy back frames – uncomfortable and tiring
  • dark colours – difficult to see fastenings
  • pour-the-baby-in loading – having to lift high, then lower a wriggly baby into the cavity.

Bottles, warmers and sterilisers

  • narrow, straight bottles – difficult to grip and fill
  • pale, small level markings – difficult or impossible to see
  • fiddly warmer controls – too small, difficult to grip
  • sterilisers with complicated loading requirements
  • awkward steriliser lids – no handle to grip, precise location required.

Safety gates

  • narrow openings – difficult for people with unsteady gait or walking aids and impossible for wheelchair users
  • high floor bar – trip hazard and wheelchair deterrent
  • painful opening mechanisms – awkward hand positions, lot of pressure required
  • adult proof catches – they have to be child proof but too few manage to avoid difficulty for the parent.

Highchairs

  • fiddly harnesses – needing dexterity and strength and a problem for more disabled people than anything else
  • difficult tray mechanisms – simultaneously pressing a button and pulling a lever to adjust or remove the tray particularly disliked
  • splaying legs and floor bars – get in the way of wheelchairs and footplates
  • inaccessible chair height controls – wheelchair users could not reach buttons on either side of the chair
  • complicated folding and unfolding – too much force needed or too much to do with different hands.

Pushchairs

  • fiddly harnesses – small, stiff clasps
  • fiddly swivel wheel locks – small, stiff and needing careful alignment
  • thin, hard handles – uncomfortable
  • difficult folding and unfolding mechanisms – small, stiff catches and catches that have to be handled simultaneously with two hands
  • heavy and bulky when folded – difficult to get on the bus or into the car boot
  • little colour contrast – difficult to see catches and fastenings.

Achieving better design

As each of the Ricability guides has been published, we have sent copies to all the manufacturers and suppliers, hoping the contents of our reports will encourage and help them to develop their products to suit more potential customers. Discouragingly, none of these manufacturers has asked for more details of inclusive design principles.

At any opportunity, we promote the commercial arguments for inclusive design: meet the needs of more parents and sales will increase; excluding potential purchasers is clearly bad business; build in inclusive design from product conception for no or negligible cost; it does not strangle innovation but encourages innovative design solutions.

Design colleges are increasingly addressing ease of use issues in their courses and some are working with a wider range of consumers to inform product development. Train young designers in the needs of disabled people and that awareness should influence all their future work.

Unfortunately legislation does not help. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not cover manufactured products. However, it does now require products supplied as part of a service to be accessible. This should contribute to the needed culture change towards inclusivity. There are also developments in international and European standardisation. Product standards cover performance and safety and manufacturers across the world build to comply with them. Awareness-raising and informative guidelines have recently been issued to assist standards developers to help them address the needs of older and disabled people.

Childcare products that exclude disabled parents are unacceptable. Therapists and disabled people have a part to play in rejecting unhelpful products and being vociferous in their demands for models that disabled parents can use easily.

Lindsey is Principal Researcher at Ricability (Research Institute for Consumer Affairs), London, UK. For more information contact: Ricability.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 49, Spring 2005.

Ricability has now been renamed Rica

E-mail: mail@rica.org.uk
Website: www.rica.org.uk

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