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Blog Post 31 March 2021 Updated 5 April 2021

How can energy access programmes increase accessibility for disabled people?

Globally, more than one billion people need one or more assistive products to help them lead a healthy and productive life. Access to assistive technologies, such as hearing aids, communication switchboards and mobility aids, is also far lower in developing countries, especially for women and children.

At the beginning of March, Efficiency for Access published a report entitled ‘How can energy access programmes address the needs of people with disabilities? An introductory note’. The report explored how programmes, manufacturers and distributors of appliances in developing countries can address the needs of people with disabilities.

The report gives a wide array of recommendations: some short-term, some longer-term, which entail whole industry shifts. There are also some practical tips that we can all incorporate into our lives, to make sure that we always bear in mind the needs of disabled people.


The scope of the issue

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is the fact that there is limited research available about the needs of people with disabilities in developing countries, although this is not for lack of demand. Despite the fact that more than one billion people need assistive products, reports suggest that 90% of people who require assistive products lack access to them. Many programmes do not explicitly reference the importance of increasing energy access to help ensure equal access to assistive technology. Similarly, while Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) on affordable and clean energy makes a reference to ‘affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’, it does not explicitly mention access for people with disabilities. It seems there is a lack of cohesion between programmes that seek to increase access to energy, and programmes that advocate for access to assistive technologies.


Manufacturers should design appliances with, not for, excluded communities

There is little research available about the requirements for disabled people to access appliances. One solution is to include disabled people at all stages of the design process. Conducting market and product research with disabled people, making consumer surveys more accessible, and recruiting disabled people as research respondents are all viable options for manufacturers that help to address the lack of existing data available. For example, GDI Hub has created inclusive design standards that incorporate some of the best practices from the 2012 London Paralympics. The standards focus on some of the key design principles used to create the ‘most accessible Games ever’.


Creating accessible content

Any content created, be it printed or digital, should be designed with disabled people in mind. Organisations should aim to create content that is easily adaptable for voice, sign language, pictograms and easy-read versions. Moreover, this is not just applicable to off-grid appliance manufacturers. The UK Government has a helpful guide to making your content accessible, which includes enabling PDFs for voice-readers, creating structured documents and making webpages disability-friendly.


There is untapped demand for solar-powered assistive products

In the past, there has been a lack of collaboration between energy access programmes and assistive product manufacturers. However, programmes that aim to increase energy access often focus on improving the affordability, availability and quality of appliances. This is much the same for manufacturers creating assistive products suitable for disabled people. Therefore, it makes sense that they would collaborate to achieve the same end goal.

The report cites SolarEar, a manufacturer of low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids, as a good example of the need for solar-powered assistive products. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally 312 million people have a hearing impairment, with two-thirds living in developing countries. Hearing aids are expensive and typically use non-rechargeable batteries, which only last for 5-10 days, so they also produce a lot of electronic waste.

SolarEar developed the first solar-powered rechargeable hearing aid, which includes the option to purchase a solar charger and universal rechargeable batteries. The hearing aids are far cheaper than other models on the market –the average price for retail hearing aids is $1,492, compared with SolarEar’s $75-225 price range. The design also protects the hearing aids from moisture in humid environments, which are typical in low- to middle-income countries where the hearing aids are primarily sold. This combination of features that make hearing aids more affordable and available, as well as suited to the countries they are sold in, is a great example of how disability-inclusive and off-grid appropriate features can be seamlessly integrated.

Last updated: 5 April 2021