Accessible packaging | Special report

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For many of us, it stands to reason that we can identify our favorite food items and read the directions on the packaging. But for those who are blind and visually impaired, this information is inaccessible and it is a problem.

“I’ve been registered as blind since I was a young boy,” says Marc Powell, head of strategic accessibility at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). “I accepted that the packaging was not accessible.

Despite this, the association has continued to campaign to make packaging and points of sale accessible. And the signs are that progress has been made. It took new technology (from NaviLens) and the support of a big brand (Kellogg’s) to initiate the change. And last month, the RNIB took the campaign a step further with the unveiling of a pop-up store to give people a taste of what it’s like to be blind or visually impaired.

The momentum came at the right time. At the end of last year, RNIB research on food packaging found that nine in ten people who are blind or visually impaired had difficulty reading information on the packaging. The charity highlighted two examples where accessible information is essential for the visually impaired.

Laura from West Sussex has a 13-year-old daughter, Jorja, who is visually impaired and celiac. Laura says, “Jorja has this condition for life, so she has to follow a strictly gluten-free diet. She’s now at the age where we’re trying to give her some autonomy, to learn those life skills to go to a store and buy things. Either we research in advance what she thinks she wants to buy, or I let her choose and check the packaging later.

“We should all be able to make an independent choice with all the information available. No one should be made more vulnerable because of the lack of accessibility.

Samantha was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy six years ago and often struggles to find accessible nutritional information, putting her health at risk. She adds, “Keeping my sugars under control is crucial to preventing my eye condition from getting worse. Not being able to access the nutritional information I need as a type 1 diabetic can be very serious.

“I will sometimes ask the staff to find the information I need, but it makes me very anxious because I cannot verify if it is correct. Accessible packaging would mean the freedom to choose what I want to eat and give me another part of my independence.

Braille is a means of communicating information on the packaging to people who are blind and visually impaired. But Powell of the RNIB points out that this format has drawbacks.

“Until now, the only options have been braille, but there are challenges from a manufacturing and user perspective,” he says. “The perception of brands was that people wanted braille. But it can create a barrier on the production lines and provide limited information. You cannot communicate all information in Braille on a pack. To put everything in place, you would need something the size of a wall.

Technology was always going to be the answer, but it took time. RNIB’s food accessibility campaign focused on the retail space, not the packaging itself. It was difficult because the charity was, as Powell put it, “a little fish in a big pond”. But in 2019, Kellogg’s approached the RNIB to create accessible packaging for people who are blind and visually impaired. The charity was also aware of NaviLens, which it worked with two years before Kellogg’s connection.

“When they first showed me the technology, I couldn’t believe how good it was,” Powell recalls. “In my whole life, I had never been able to navigate a store on my own; I was with a colleague of mine who was in tears – at one point I was leading them. “

In a nutshell, NaviLens is similar to a QR code but can be detected in a fraction of the time and up to three meters away. A smartphone can detect optics and read labeling and allergen information to the user. Changes to packaging artwork allow technology to flourish while phones play an important role.

“Smartphones are like a Swiss Army Knife to me,” Powell adds. “Without them, I would miss so much. A lot of people don’t realize that these devices have so many accessibility features built in. It provides a bridge.

In October 2020, Kellogg’s was ready to test – in more than 50 Co-op stores – accessible packaging on its Coco Pops brand. The trial included boxes that incorporated not only braille, larger print and simplified illustrations, but also NaviLens technology. The trial was considered a success with 97% of them agreeing that they would like to see more accessibility features available on grocery packaging.

Kellogg’s was so encouraged by the results that it announced that NaviLens codes will be added to its entire grain product line across Europe starting early next year.

“The trial delivered results beyond our expectations, the main source of its success being the introduction of NaviLens,” says Pete Matthews, director of brand design and operations at Kellogg’s. “This is why we are now proud to announce that from the start of 2022, our entire European cereal product portfolio will feature NaviLens codes. We were incredibly proud to take this journey with our friends at RNIB to find a solution to make packaging accessible to all and hope this inspires other brand owners to join this movement.

Powell thinks other brands could follow suit and not just in food; packaging in other markets could use the application.

“The possibilities are endless,” he adds. “Household products containing sprays could benefit from this – safety is extremely important. In the pharmaceutical sector, the European directive revolves around Braille, but is it an intuitive way to access information? Probably not, because you get a limited amount of information.

Powell believes the move is a game-changer and has “stirred the pot” when it comes to educating the public about accessible packaging. RNIB sought to engage with members of the public through its Design for Everyone campaign. As part of the campaign, last month, the charity opened its “WhatsIn Store” event to provide insight into what it feels like to be faced with inaccessible packaging.

“We needed to convey the problem to the general public and highlight it,” he adds. “The store is a great way to provoke a reaction, showing the level of frustration of blind and visually impaired people. “

The store, located in central London, is stocked with products with blank or intentionally vague packaging. Hidden cameras will capture people’s reactions as the shopkeeper reveals that this is the reality of visually impaired people when they shop or want to buy food on the go.

Powell promises more will follow next year and the plan is also to collaborate with more brands and ultimately influence the government. If this year’s activity is going well, then the conversation around accessible packaging is gaining momentum – and not before its time.


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