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Denise Stephens: Mainstreaming accessibility (Technology and disabled people series)

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Damon Rose Damon Rose | 09:37 UK time, Thursday, 1 November 2012

Denise Stephens

Denise Stephens, 33, is the founder of Enabled by Design, a website which gets people discussing how products can be created with everyone in mind. It encourages ideas to flow, invites you to recommend products you love or hate, and ultimately aims to get users and designers talking to each other.

She was a forensic toxicologist when her health took a bad turn. Denise had to give up her job and, in 2003, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Several attempts to return to work as a temp failed over a number of years and led to a further decline in her health. By 2007 she was coming to terms with the loss of a career yet needed something to keep her mind occupied.

Denise was given a bathboard and other white plastic equipment by her occupational therapist (OT) when she was very ill. It was to assist her with living independently and it did help but she says the objects were making her home feel like a hospital.

When she found there was little out there in the way of attractively designed aids for the home, she came up with the idea for a website. Her idea was chosen to be part of the UK's first Social Innovation Camp in 2008. Business people, developers and design experts helped her hone the concept and build a working prototype. The site, Enabled by Design, went on to win.

Now Denise regularly speaks at trade events and spreads her philosophy. Four years after the initial concept was born, on the eve of her Enabled by Design-athon weekend in London, she answers our technology questions and talks to us about how collaborative projects like hers could not have existed without the internet.


What technology do you use regularly?

When we talk about assistive or accessible technology, people think it's only computers and things which involve electrical components but the term covers everything from low tech to high tech; from crutches an stools to computers and environment controls.

I use two crutches because my mobility can be wobbly. My balance isn't good as a result of MS, its related eye problems and fatigue. If my back gives way, my legs give way.

I was given a special white tubular framed perching stool by my occupational therapist but preferred the look of a 32 pound bar stool from Ikea which worked perfectly for me when preparing food on the kitchen side.

I am, however, dependent on equipment which is often mainstream, and that people don't necessarily think of as an assistive product - like my one touch can-opener. It's battery operated, magnetic, and you stick it on the top of a can of food. It cuts round the edge leaving the lid stuck to the magnet and, when you've opened it up, you can then easily transfer the lid to the bin. My hands are stiff and numb so I can't use a regular can opener. It works very well.

I also use a Kindle book reader which can sometimes be easier to hold than a book as it's very lightweight. it's electronic paper screen is easier for me to read than a bright computer screen as I have optic neuritis and glare can affect my vision.


What technology do you wish had never been invented?

People have written into us with their design hates: swivel bathers, plastic chairs on a lever, I can well imagine that if you have a minimalistic bathroom with a big white chair in it, it may not fit with your aspirations or the aesthetics you like.

Choice is very important, everyone has their own tastes, and you should be able to achieve the lifestyle you want.


If the web was taken away from me today ...

... it would have a huge impact on my independence. I do my grocery shopping online because I have fatigue and mobility difficulties which make it hard to get to a supermarket and carry back a large number of items. It's far easier to get it delivered.

Shopping for clothes is very difficult too but for different reasons. I use crutches which means I don't have a free hand, can't pick up garments and can't carry them round a store. It's far simpler to have clothes delivered to my home from an online shop. I can lay them out and try them on more easily and I send them back if they don't fit.

Enabled by Design would have a very different guise if it weren't for the internet; it's amazing how many people you can reach. You can find lots of like-minded people in a similar situation to you. If you think of the other people living in your block of flats, there's likely to be no one else there with MS but I can join an MS community online and find people with the same problems and interests. It lowers the barriers to getting involved in new things if you have a computer and the internet, especially if you have mobility difficulties.


What has been your most adventurous feat in technology?

Before Enabled by Design and the Social Innovation Camp, I was a tech novice. I didn't have a laptop, I didn't go on the internet except to do very specific tasks and that was for reading web pages rather than doing stuff online. I knew nothing about apps or software and so this has all been a steep learning curve and been very exciting.

I now go into the back end of our website and can understand it. I didn't know what a URL was - I called it a web address - and now I'm confronted by HTML code, can add links and make things bold. It all used to look like a dark science to me and was overwhelming but now I've got to grips with it and am very proud of that.

It's been an exciting time where I've learnt about new things. I've become interested in 3D printing and we're going to have one at the event. I've seen products made by a 3D printer but haven't yet seen one in action - I'm really enthused by it.


How do you use social media?

I'd say social media is at the core of Enabled by Design.

We use Facebook and Twitter to talk to our community, engage people, tell people what we're up to, to share our blog posts with tweets, to spread news of this event we're doing and to hear about people's loves, hates, ideas and hacks.

On Twitter we're @enabledby. Our website is a bit restricted in terms of what people can add to the site. It'll be much richer when we're able to build the next version and get people involved in sending images an videos and more.

When we first started it was about building a community. We had people with personal experience of independent living, maybe people with social care experience, and we've had some designers in touch. I was incredibly pleased when we reached a thousand people on Facebook recently but it's almost about having to broker that bigger relationship now, having to build a proof of concept: if you bring together these people, how can they work together? So far it's just been us speaking about stuff but there's only so long you can do that; we now want to move into action mode. In a practical face-to-face event like the Enabled by Design-athon, we can figure out how these things work.


What tech innovation would you like to see?

The ability to customise everything. For me, making accessible technology go mainstream is very interesting. People use all sorts of assistive technology like voice recognition, software to increase text size and so on, but some of this stuff is in bulky stand alone gadgets. And if you need more than one of these things to help with independence, they can start taking over your life.

It's exciting to see new products, like Apple's Universal Access, where people's needs have been met by giving them the ability to adjust products according to their preference. This is important as some accessibility equipment can be quite stigmatising and people would just like to use mainstream things. Access gear can be expensive too. If mainstream equipment were customisable, the economies of scale would bring the price right down.

• The Enable by Design-athon weekend starts on November 2 in Greenwich, London. Read more about the Enabled by Design-athon event.

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