Bill Holton

Sometimes the littlest things can make the biggest difference in accessibility. For example, the tiny dot on the number 5 on phone keypads and on the F and J keys on a standard keyboard. This article looks at a tiny modification that will help people who are blind with orientation and identification, a simple idea from a small division of an international giant we hope will go companywide, and then spread from there. After that we’ll look at the latest addition to the Be My Eyes “Specialized Help” page: spoiler alert—both of these come from the Proctor & Gamble company!

Sumaira Latif is the Accessibility Lead for Procter & Gamble, makers of a wide catalog of consumer products ranging from Tide detergent to Charmin bathroom tissue. Latif sees her job as being threefold.

“We want to make P&G a more inclusive and accessible workplace so we can attract and hire the best employees,” she says. “We also need to ensure our company’s advertising and other communications are as accessible as possible, and work toward making our products useable by the approximately 1.7 billion persons with disabilities around the world.”

Latif acknowledges that accessibility is a work in progress, but the work has begun. For example, “All our reception and security staff are guides for blind people to take them to meeting rooms, cafeterias, etc., if and when the individual needs to so that they can focus on doing their job and not stress about getting around,” says Latif. “We also have a company JAWS cheat sheet so that whenever a new JAWS user comes into P&G we know what settings to apply to the individual's computer and know what tips to give the user to access apps.”

Last year the company implemented a series of audio-described commercials for P&G products such as Charmin toilet paper, Head & Shoulders shampoo, and Bold pods. “Now all US P&G advertising comes with audio description, a first in the advertising industry," she states proudly.

As for packaging, this is a problem Latif herself has experienced first-hand, since she herself is blind. “I couldn’t distinguish among the different age-size Pampers,” she says. “I also like to use Herbal Essence products, only the shampoos and conditioners are packaged in the exact same P&G bottles, so they are impossible to tell apart in the shower without marking them somehow.”

Latif took this problem to Herbal Essences packaging expert, Shane Mayes, and the two decided this was a problem they could fix.

After several failed prototypes that led to leaky bottles, the two were finally able to create a slight modification to the existing bottle design that laser etches four tiny vertical lines onto shampoo bottles and two rows of round impressions on the conditioners. “I think of it them as ‘S’ for ‘stripes,' for shampoo, and ‘C’ for ‘circles,’ for conditioners,” says Latif. “It gets the job done, and it was a lot faster than trying to get braille labeling or shepherding a complete package redesign through the corporate hierarchy.”

The marks are etched into the rear side of the bottle near the bottom edge where the plastic is at its thickest. They are fairly easy to distinguish, especially in the shower when your hands are wet and soapy, and braille reading skills are not required. The bottles can be recycled through the TerraCycle take-back program.

Currently, the tactile markers are only available on the Bio:Renew line of Herbal Essences botanical shampoos and conditioners which includes 15 variants, or “flavors.”

“Maybe one day stripes and circles to mark shampoo versus conditioners will be as universal as the dots on dial-pad fives,” says Latif.

In the meantime, Latif has already brought another accessibility tool from her personal toolbox to the company. Latif is a frequent user of Be My Eyes, the free video assistance app that now features over two million volunteers offering sighted help to over 130,000 people with visual impairments. (We’ve written extensively about this “must have” app; see the linked lists at the end of this piece.)

Today, if you open the Be My Eyes app and invoke the “Specialized Help” option, along with the Be My Eyes support team, Microsoft and Google, you are now offered the option to be connected via video with a trained member of the “Herbal Essences” product support team.

“Perhaps you’d like to learn more about the ingredients, or which product might be best for your particular hair type,” says Latif. “Sighted consumers can easily read the label, or reach out to our consumer hotline, but it’s been our experience that sight-impaired users won’t go through the trouble of tracking down the number. Becoming a Be My Eyes provider offers these consumers an easy way to reach out.”

Latif and Herbal Essences communications manager, Rachel Zipperian, have spent many hours brainstorming possible inquiries to ensure their customer representatives receive the proper training. “Honestly, we don’t know exactly where the users will be taking us, but we look forward to the journey,” says Zipperian.

For Be My Eyes users in the United States, Herbal Essences is the first addition to the “Specialized Help” option that isn't a tech company. In other parts of the world, however, banks have begun to partner, including Lloyd’s Bank and Bank of Scotland and Halifax.

“We are hoping to add several more US based partners in the near future,” says Be My Eyes Chief Commercial Officer Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, who notes that the company is currently negotiating with dozens of online retailers, US banks, telecoms, and even social networks and blindness organizations to offer sighted help to their visually impaired customers and users.

“When we first introduced ‘Specialized Help’ we received user requests to include over 600 different companies,” says Hauerslev Jensen. “The ones that were most popular, such as Google, we approached right away. “We also began to hear from volunteers who introduced Be My Eyes to the companies where they work and told them, ‘We should be doing this, too.’”

Companies do pay to become Be My Eyes partner. “That’s one of the ways we’re able to keep the service free for the users,” says Hauerslev Jensen. “We train some of their regular customer representatives, who use tablets to connect and offer assistance to users.”

Here at AccessWorld we anticipate some pretty remarkable improvements in accessible customer service. It wasn’t too long ago when a silent computer meant waiting until a sighted friend could stop by to help diagnose the problem. Now a quick Be My Eyes session will usually do the trick. Imagine calling your cable company because your Internet is down and having the first question not be, “What color are the flashing lights on your router?” Or having a service department rep help you find and read the number on the broken icemaker you're not sure you've identified correctly?

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
Access Issues