Technological innovations have taken us by storm. Smart technology and digital tools have created a world of opportunities and employment in several industries. Across cities, tech-hubs exist and grapple with some of the most complex and straightforward challenges we face – always coming up with new answers to old problems.
Reading the title of this article, what are the first few words that come to your mind when you think of under-looked areas? For me, this includes individuals who might look visually different, have special needs and different abilities.
Despite advances in technology, social reform & impact investment, disabled and visibly different individuals continue to face significant barriers to include themselves and participate in everyday society. The products and services that are available for disabled people simply haven’t kept pace. This needs to change.
Take a look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. These times have brought a lot of issues and transformations to the surface of our daily lives. Think about the work from home and remote work transition, growth in e-commerce, less reliability on brick and mortar, and the need for financial independence now more than ever. But ask yourself, have you thought about the transformations and dependencies disabled individuals are experiencing in this new normal?
Technology and innovation are powerhouses for inclusion for those with disabilities. The lack of visibility and opportunity in this space is probably related to an issue of fairness and social justice. But in my opinion, an equally vast opportunity for startups and investors.
The time to remove all barriers by using technology and innovation is now.
You could argue that the top three skills required by any entrepreneur are communication, resiliency, and the ability to execute a proof of concept. There’s nothing stopping founders with different needs from gaining and mastering these three skills! “How,” you may ask? This simply comes with trial and error and consistent execution.
Curious about any existing examples out there? Remarkable is Australia’s first disability tech accelerator, an impact-driven initiative providing seed funding, mentorship, and guidance to early-stage and scalable technologies that have the potential to make a difference in people’s lives.
At the heart of it, Remarkable’s end-goal is to build inclusivity into every development process. “We want to make sure that people with disabilities are front and center in terms of designing products and services with companies. Companies need to be doing that from the very beginning, not as an afterthought or an add-on,” says Pete Horsley, founder of the disability tech accelerator, Remarkable. The core of a startup is to solve a problem. Remarkable’s accelerator pushes founders to go beyond the boundaries to create new solutions to old problems. “Since it began in March 2016, Remarkable has worked with 20 startups to positively impact the lives of people with disabilities. They have seen 82 full-time equivalent jobs created through the startups and have served 2,517 customers with a disability.” See here.
So, what can be done to improve this space?
Full participation and inclusion do not happen overnight. Instead, a thorough analysis and consideration are needed to promote and support people with disabilities and their families. We also need to consider the various stages throughout their lives, such as education, adulthood, and life as a senior. Validating these phases is crucial as each step represents an array of opportunities and challenges. Each stage prepares them and their family for the next chapter of their lives.
Let’s look at an example. We all strive and are encouraged to go through the education system. As such, we play immense importance in the school system. In turn, we hope that these systems can deliver on our needs, which typically lead to employment. During this transition period, around the age of 16, systems should focus on assessments. These should aim to help students and their families match their interests and skills, ideally with personal development options, including further training, volunteering, education, or employment.
The reality in this example for those with different needs and abilities, is that these students do not end up being fully engaged with society and end up sitting at home – likely since the transition process explained above didn’t follow through for these students.
For many, the ability to earn and have employment translates to purpose and pride. So the real question here is – how do we create the opportunity for people with disabilities to share the same experience?
On the other hand, grouping students and individuals with a disability into one classroom or group isn’t practical as there’s such a broad spectrum of disabilities. A disability can be physical, psychiatric, sensory, neurological, or even genetic. The problems that can arise here are learning paces being completely different, varying attention and needs, and a vast difference in the barriers to learn. To get a more detailed list, see here.
The potential answer? We need to promote social capital opportunities for everyone to be understood. We need to realize each other’s benefits and understand how our differences can contribute to our society! We need to create more opportunities for people with disabilities to become part of the workforce in competitive employment and, most importantly, allowing them to create that workforce.
Let’s go back to our living case study, Remarkable. I encourage you to read more into this accelerator and, most importantly, see the progress, initiatives, and products these founders have been able to build. Every one of their program startups has the potential to build high-growth and difference-making business.
Now, if you’re wondering why this space would be necessary for investors to be aware, this can be related to three concepts; market size, potential, and needs.
A simple Google search will show you a list of companies that are already making a headway and bringing this market to light. Check out this TechCrunch article as an example. This market is primarily addressed as the ‘Assistive Technology’ space, and the prices always seem to be relatively high:
Novel idea x new space x slow adopters x lack of investment = high prices.
This may be a completely new concept to some, controversial to others, and relatable to only a handful. Whatever your perspective is on this topic, it is likely related to your own experiences throughout life. For me, this hits home. Quite literally.
My eldest sister, Hazel, is one of the most creative, personable, resilient, intelligent, thoughtful (this list can smoothly go on) people I know. Unfortunately, she’s had to deal with a lot of health complications throughout her life. All of this, while also being labelled as someone who has a developmental delay. Her biggest struggle is fitting into how society and her environments are molded, putting her talents to use, and at the end of the day, figuring out what her purpose is.
I think of Hazel when the topic of a more innovative, prosperous, and inclusive Canada comes to the front.
A call to action here is to shed light into this space to help drive down prices by providing funding and resources for founders who bring new answers to old problems.
And the essential factor is to remove this narrative of seeing people with disabilities as ‘others.’ Instead, power the people who live these problems day in and day out with the tools to help build the tech designed and needed to support them.
Ushpreet Mehta is a 2019 RBC Honorary Fellow recipient, and a 2019 VFC Fellow. Ushpreet is a Project Coordinator at OneLocal. She studied Commerce at Queen’s University. She is interested in writing about a more innovative, prosperous, and inclusive Canada.
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