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Covid-19: Neatebox founder’s mission to ‘level the playing field’ for disabled people
Assistive technologies have a profound impact on the lives of disabled people. The evolution of mobile connectivity and smartphones mean that a wide range of innovative solutions can be accessed anywhere and at any time.
Today, the need for digital tech to help the UK’s 13.9 million people with managing a disability is greater than ever. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that two in three people who have died from Covid-19 are disabled, with almost a third (30.3%) of coronavirus deaths being among people who said their daily activities were “limited a lot” because of a health problem or disability.
Clearly there is potential for consumer and business applications designed to increase safety for – and inspire confidence in – disabled people. Gavin Neate, founder and CEO of Edinburgh-based Neatebox, knows this – because he launched one eight years ago.
On the Button
Called Button, the smartphone app lets users “press” a physical button at a road crossing by tapping a virtual one on their smartphone, which can also be set to automatically activate the button when in range.
Wheelchair users, for example, can use it to easily activate a button that may not be easy (or impossible) for them to reach. Meanwhile, somebody with OCD might use the app to avoid having to touch crossing buttons, which are never cleaned, removing the need to wash their hands. On a technical level, Button is simple and cost-effective, requiring nothing more than a Bluetooth chip to be installed at a box junction or in a door for hands-free access.
Button was followed by Neatebox’s second product, called WelcoME, which Gavin says has “revolutionised customer experience” for disabled people. Launched in 2018, the smartphone app-based solution helps people visit any venue – such as a shop, bank or library – with reduced anxiety.
First, users set up a personalised profile that explains their disability – whether physical, mental or otherwise. When they approach the venue, the app triggers a virtual perimeter that alerts its staff to come and provide assistance. That could involve anything – from helping them skip the queue to getting their shopping without touching items while maintaining social distancing.
Gavin is quick to challenge any notion that Button and WelcoME are ‘nice to have’ solutions. He recalls the beginning of the pandemic when a section of the UK population was defined on medical grounds as ‘vulnerable’ if they were older or had pre-existing conditions.
Ironically, it meant that those who had for years been labelled as such (including blind people, or those with neurological conditions such as autism or Down’s Syndrome) suddenly weren’t, placing them in a precarious situation.
“The problem is that the system won’t cope if you put 13 million disabled people on the vulnerable list,” explains Gavin. “Many people didn’t want to go to shops because they didn’t want to catch Covid-19, but the process in place meant that they were more likely to do so.”
Neatebox has an increasing list of accolades and clients to its name. It’s a Tech Nation Rising Stars 1.0 competition winner and has won places on WeWork UK and Google for Startups UK programmes this year. Gavin has received emails from companies in Australia, Canada and the US asking when Neatebox’s solutions are launching internationally.
In the UK, the company counts RBS, NorthLink Ferries, and Edinburgh Airport among its clients, in addition to an optometrist and a university that’s trialling its solutions. However, Gavin, who is a prolific self-marketer on LinkedIn and regularly gives media interviews, says that attracting interest domestically has been slow progress at times.
It was especially “frustrating” for him when an article published in the Scotsman offering free usage of WelcoME to supermarkets was met with silence. He believes that this is down to a lack of vision compounded by outdated methods of customer service and staff training.
“Those who aren’t interested in our solutions probably aren’t because they don’t have the vision to see what they can do for them,” he says. “People prefer to hit their horse faster rather, so to speak, rather than going out and inventing a car. Most totally new innovations need champions and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Covid-19, for all of the tragedy it has inflicted upon the world, has presented an unexpected opportunity for Neatebox. In tackling new challenges posed by the virus, Gavin is excited at the prospect of turning Button and WelcoME into commercially sustainable solutions that cater for both abled and disabled users.
Instead of installing disabled access doors that cost up to £15,000 in buildings, companies could instead integrate a version of Button with a universal design that allows anybody to open the door using their smartphone – removing the need to interact with a potentially infected door handle.
“Having a universal design makes me excited on so many levels,” says Gavin. “It levels the playing field in that, for the first time, abled people will be thinking, ‘thank God that disabled people exist!’”
WelcoME could similarly cater for both demographics by providing information about a venue before people visit – such as whether it will provide items including hand sanitiser (or masks) and if staff will be on-hand to assist. Gavin is confident that taking this approach would help companies convince more of their customers to return, directly impacting their bottom line.
With the ramifications of Covid-19 likely to extend into 2021 and potentially beyond, Gavin is keen on speaking to a wide range of venues that could benefit from both Button and WelcoME. Coworking spaces, he says, are a particularly good fit due to having a front-of-house receptionist who could greet WelcoME users who enter the building using Button – no matter what business they are there to see (or work for). It also introduces the possibility of creating safe spaces for disabled entrepreneurs to start their business.
With Covid-19 set to present itself as a problem for the world for some time to come, Gavin is looking to capitalise on a long-awaited opportunity to help disabled people by levelling the playing field. Disruption in digital tech requires impeccable timing, and the worst of times could prove to be the best time for Neatebox and its determined founder.