By: Alyssa Wright
Imagine hearing the excited chatter of your classmates gushing about the hottest new video game or coolest back-to-school fashion. You listen with envy. Not because your parents denied you the latest trending goods, but because you know they’re not accessible to you—your hands can’t grasp the controller, you can’t fasten the buttons. For a growing number of US kids, this is more than just an imagined scenario. This is reality.
Every day kids with special needs face the harsh truth that some brands are not made for kids like them. Fortunately, with advances in technology and a heightened awareness of consumers’ varying levels of physical and mental abilities, brands are making sure that exclusivity is on the outs, and innovative inclusivity is in. Here’s how they’re doing it.
In May, Microsoft Xbox—the number-one gaming system among US kids ages six to 12, according to Smarty Pants’ annual Brand Love* tracking study—introduced a new gaming controller designed with inclusivity as the main objective. “Our goal was to make the device as adaptable as possible, so gamers can create a setup that works for them in a way that is plug-and-play, extensible and affordable,” said Xbox head Phil Spencer at the time of the launch. Available this fall, and priced at US$99.99, the adaptive controller will offer gamers an affordable option for customizing the device to their specific physical abilities using specialized accessories. To further ensure that the Xbox Adaptive Controller is truly inclusive, Microsoft partnered with RAM Mounts to create mounting solutions that can secure the controller directly to the body or a wheelchair.
Screen-free screen time
Known for innovative technology, Apple has inclusivity as a foundational principle. According to its website, “The most powerful technology should be accessible to everyone.” The company is bringing this belief to life by revamping its products with features such as VoiceOver, which allows visually impaired users to interact with Apple products without having to see the screen.
Retailers like Fat Brain Toys now have highly refined special needs resource centers to help parents find the perfect playthings based on the child’s challenges and goals. From ADD to Asperger’s to hearing impairment, parents can shop online for brands such as Squigz, Spoolz and Color Me Calm coloring books.
At the same time, more toycos are focused not only on accessible play experiences, but on representing kids with diverse needs and abilities. LEGO, for example, has mini-figures that include kids using wheelchairs and service animals. Similarly, American Girl continues to embrace inclusion with doll accessories such as a hearing aids, service dogs, crutches and wheelchairs.
Technology brands are not the only ones looking for better ways to serve consumers with inclusive products. Adaptive apparel, as the segment is known, modifies clothing for ease of use by those with different abilities. Traditional buttons are replaced with magnetic upgrades, laces are switched out for straps, zippers are nixed in favor of Velcro, and attention is paid to making fabric sensory-friendly—all without sacrificing style.
Target further secured its place in the hearts of parents when it launched sensory-friendly and adaptive kids apparel collections under the Cat & Jack label in 2018. The collections are designed with kids’ physical disabilities and sensitivities in mind, as well as practicality for the parents caring for them. Features such as flat seams, tag-free shirts, magnetic buttons, snap-up shirt backs, reinforced belt loops and pocket-free jeans are strategically disguised to make the clothing look identical to the brands’ traditional styles, giving kids the confidence to wear their clothes proudly.
Earlier this year, Tommy Hilfiger expanded its existing line of inclusive clothing with the launch of the spring 2018 Tommy Adaptive collection. The line includes inventive improvements on existing adaptive designs for both adults and kids, such as low-front/high-back pants for those in wheelchairs, adjustable waists, side-seam openings, one-handed zippers, wide-leg openings, and adjustable hems to make everything more accessible.
Lands’ End also entered the industry this year with the fall 2018 launch of its Universal brand. With the slogan “making independence routine,” the collection includes adaptive versions of the brand’s best-selling fashions, as well as a line of specially designed school uniforms.
Even Nike—the top apparel and footwear brand among kids, according to the 2018 Brand Love study—has stepped into adaptive apparel. The Nike FlyEase offers kids a high-performance athletic shoe with discrete adaptive features, such as a lace-free, adjustable strap system to secure the shoe, and extra-wide widths for those with braces or ankle/foot orthotics.
Commitment to consumers
Whether it’s Chuck E. Cheese offering Sensory Sensitive Sunday events for kids on the autism spectrum, grocery stores launching sensory-sensitive shopping hours, or national movie theater brands hosting modified film screenings, it’s obvious that thriving brands are renewing their commitment to putting consumers’ diverse needs first. Expect to see more brands evolve to meet inclusive demands as the number of kids with physical and mental differences and limitations grows.
Brand Love is an annual brand equity tracking study conducted online among a representative sample of US households with children ages six to 12. This year, 8,904 children and their parents evaluated 379 consumer brands across 19 categories as part of the two-month study.
Alyssa Wright is media maven at Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. For more information, contact Meredith Frank at 914-939-1897 or visit asksmartypants.com.