By Heather McInnes.
Health care standards have significantly improved over the last few decades. People are living longer and people with previously fatal injuries and illness are being saved. As a result of this, within developed countries, there are individuals with higher than previously known levels of physical disability.
Despite these improvements in health care, design of assistive equipment for people with a disability has not correspondingly improved and the market competition is limited. In particular, there is a great lack of design and option for consumers needing cost effective items. Compare this, for example, to the market place for bicycles. There is a massive level of competition and option for bottom of the range, low-cost bikes.
Unfortunately, consumers of assistive equipment are often financially disadvantaged. Our community does not consistently enable people with disabilities to join the workforce and generate an income. Many people with a disability rely on aged or disability pensions. And often these are inadequate to fill the gap between state funding and the cost of a necessary item of assistive equipment. And pensions are definitely not adequate to permit self-funding.
The lack of design improvement of assistive equipment alternatives may therefore be because the target audience are not financially attractive to designers and manufacturers. There is a very limited range of cost effective, well designed and aesthetically pleasing options for people who need assistive equipment.
However, imminent changes to health care funding may attract more competition to this currently stagnant market place. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is currently being piloted around the country. The fundamental principle of the new scheme is that the person with the disability will be able to determine how their funding support is spent. People will have an opportunity to prioritise the design and quality of the assistive equipment they acquire.
In addition, Australia has an ageing population. Did you know, that according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 2005 and 2020 the number of persons aged 55 and over will increase by more than 50 percent! This demographic change will elevate, relative to other demographics, the economic power of elderly people in the market place.
This represents a significant opportunity for designers and suppliers. Thanks to superannuation, many older Australians are now not relying solely on the aged pension in retirement. Financially independent older people may not want to use a blue commode with vinyl padding, stainless steel institutional grab rails or an ugly walking aid.
Creating assistive equipment alternatives that don’t make a home look like a hospital, that can match existing furniture choices and maintain user dignity will be rewarding for a socially motivated designer. For the more financially motivated designer, there are emerging incentives to contribute as well!