Design Brands Are Finally Making Forays Into Accessibility

Pottery Barn has updated its best-selling furnishings to better suit people with disabilities—a response to the dearth of accessible high-design home products and the community’s massive spending power.

Image courtesy Pottery Barn

When the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, in 1990, it banned disability-based discrimination in all parts of public life. People with disabilities could no longer be denied access to schools, jobs, and transit, and places such as restaurants, stores, and movie theaters were soon equipped with ramps and elevators that made mobility easier. (Some public facilities are still working on it.) Though the act greatly transformed how people with disabilities navigate the world, it only addresses areas of public accommodation and employment. Consumer products are a different story. 

In recent years, however, there has been noticeable advancement on many fronts. Reebok recently launched Fit to Fit, a collection of adaptive sneakers with easy-to-use zippers, removable insoles that can accommodate prosthetics, and a low-cut design that aids mobility. Nike experimented with hands-free technology for its Go FlyEase silhouette, the first 100 percent hands-free sneaker ever made, but garnered criticism when resellers listed the limited-edition model for up to $2,000 online. (Fortunately, e-commerce marketplaces like the disability-friendly Adaptista exist.) Microsoft, meanwhile, has redesigned its Xbox packaging and controllers for limited-mobility gamers.

Image courtesy Pottery Barn

When it comes to making progress on accessibility, the design and furniture industries are lagging behind fashion and technology. One exception is Ikea, which in 2019 released the ThisAbles set of 3D-printable “furniture hacks” that enhance a selection of the Swedish giant’s lineup to make them more usable by people with disabilities. The add-ons include handles that allow cupboard doors to be opened with the forearm and legs that make a sofa easier to rise from. 

A major push is coming from furniture giant Pottery Barn, which recently reimagined more than 150 of its best-selling home furnishings to better suit people with disabilities. The strides toward inclusivity happened after Marta Benson, the brand’s president, noticed one of her store’s bathrooms didn’t contain Pottery Barn furniture because none of its consoles complied with an ADA clause that requires public bathrooms to have wheelchair-accessible sinks. She started tuning into matters of inclusivity, which resulted in the brand hiring experts from the Disability Education and Advocacy Network and designers who specialize in accessibility to consult on the collection. 

Image courtesy Pottery Barn

Many products received small tweaks, such as desks whose dimensions were adjusted to accommodate wheelchairs and that feature open storage to eliminate gripping and pulling drawers. Others were more elaborate—armchairs, for example, were equipped with power lift functionality that makes it easier to get up and sit down. Each accessible product fits squarely within the Pottery Barn look and feel, and falls at the same price point as the original. “We don’t want customers to feel like they live in a hospital,” Benson tells Fast Company. “You shouldn’t have to compromise design to have this functionality.”

Pottery Barn’s decision to design for inclusivity will likely be a boon for business because people with disabilities wield considerable spending power. According to the American Institutes for Research, the total disposable income for U.S. adults with disabilities clocks in at $490 billion. Despite this, few design brands have considered issues of accessibility in their product line. “There’s a long history of people with disabilities fighting to gain access to consumer products designed for their needs,” says Aimi Hamrai, an associate professor of medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University. “The ADA only addresses areas of public accommodation and employment, so brands that make home goods haven’t felt compelled legally to make products for this community.” Updating products to better suit people with disabilities isn’t only good for business, it’s simply the right thing to do.

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