Text by Rachel Siegel, The Washington Post
These simple hacks don't drastically change Ikea furniture -- but they can transform a product for people with disabilities. To make some of their most popular products more accessible, Ikea's branch in Israel partnered with Israeli disability rights groups to design low-tech add-ons -- like special zippers and handles. The project, called ThisAbles, also reviewed hundreds of items and drew up a list of dozens of products that can already accommodate people with a range of disabilities, like tables that work for wheelchairs.
So far, only Ikea Israel is involved in the project. But experts said the retailer stands apart as one of the only mainstream furniture sellers working to design products with special needs in mind.
Accessibility can mean many things for companies, said Yuval Wagner, president and founder of Access Israel, one of the non-profits that partnered with Ikea. That can include designing websites that are navigable for people who can't see, or phone lines for those who can't hear. For a furniture retailer like Ikea, that means designing products that work for all shoppers, Wagner said.
"Usually if you want special clothes, you have to go to a special website," Wagner said. "If you want special furniture or equipment, you go to special stores."
The idea came from an Israeli employee at the ad agency McCann who worked on the creative team designing projects for Ikea, said Ikea Israel chief executive Shuki Koblenz. The employee, Eldar Yusupov, has cerebral palsy and said he wanted to be able to buy furniture from mainstream stores, without having to find specially-made sofas or chairs elsewhere.
"In my own home of all places, I'm surrounded by furniture calling out 'cripple,'" Yusupov said in a video. "I'd like to sit on a regular sofa without being afraid I won't be able to get up, to open a regular closet, or even to turn on a regular lamp."
In the video, a sofa gets a boost from four leg attachments, helping Yusupov stand up more easily. A large switch helps him turn a lamp on and off without having to manipulate his fingers around a smaller button.
Koblenz said Ikea needed join forces with advocacy and design groups to launch the project. Along with Access Israel, Ikea teamed up with Milbat, an Israeli nonprofit that designs and provides devices and technology for people with disabilities.
The team reviewed Ikea's inventory and pinpointed more than 130 pieces of furniture and household items that are already suited for people with varying needs. Milbat also developed 13 add-ons that latch onto Ikea beds, shelves, shower curtains, pillows and more. They include hooks that attach to the side of a bed to hold a cane and a handle for opening drawers with a forearm instead of just a few fingers.
The 13 hacks are only display in Israeli Ikea stores, and customers can order the devices online from Milbat. But for shoppers elsewhere, the group also published the blueprints for 3D printouts that can be downloaded for free. Koblenz said customers can also request tweaks to the devices in case the models made for Ikea products don't fit with their own furniture. Koblenz would not say how much the project is costing Ikea.
Aside from specialty furniture designers, Ikea stands out as a mainstream retailer making designs for its furniture, said Marty Exline, an expert on disability services and director of the National Assistive Technology Act Technical Assistance and Training Center. Other retailers could stand to not only create add-ons of their own, Exline said, but keep accessibility in mind through the whole design process.
"It's not only about specialty devices," Exline said, "but also thinking about accessibility as they're designing their furniture, and thinking about it from the start.