“Our ethos is that the solution starts with the people who understand the problem, and as CEO of a company it’s my job to talk to the people who understand the problem so I can come up with a solution”. It’s a warm August afternoon, and deep inside a dimly lit restaurant Gavin Neate is energetically describing the philosophy behind Neatebox, the pioneering smart technology firm changing the ways that people with disabilities interact with the world around them. After a 10 year career with the RAF and 18 years with Guide Dogs, Gavin founded Neatebox with the aim of using smartphone apps to tackle the number of pedestrian crossings inaccessible to people with mobility issues. Following the success of the Pedestrian Neatebox and Tourism Neatebox apps, Gavin is now using proximity-aware technology to challenge the lack of inclusivity in the infrastructures underpinning all of our lives. “The world’s changing” he says, brimming with enthusiasm, “and I feel that we’re on the edge of doing something really cool and ground-breaking and disruptive, which is the big word”. Gavin sits down with Blackwood tenant John Logan and me for a conversation on the successes, challenges, and future of a firm changing the very ways that we think about disability.
The Pedestrian Neatebox app is central to the philosophy that motivates Gavin. “The more I got involved in solutions, I realised that people are disabled by the situation they’re in. If I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t get through a door I’m disabled, but if the door’s wider then I can get through and I’m not disabled”. As John tells us, “small changes make a big difference; if you widen a door-frame 2 inches then I’ll be able to get my wheelchair through”. Gavin then suggests that “if I’m carrying boxes and can’t push the button at a crossing I am disabled by those boxes – it’s a way of looking at the word with a different perspective. If you want to label somebody as having a disability that pertains to a specific condition then that’s one thing, but I’m more inclined to look at it as an infrastructure that disables, and I want to find a solution to that infrastructure disability. If I can get rid of that infrastructure disability, then that person is no longer disabled by it”. Gavin observes that cities often disable people by failing to adapt and offer greater accessibility. “Now, as a human race we find ways around this, for example wheelchairs developed with off-roading potential and so on – but this is expensive, and it’s software design where we need to focus”. The work Neatebox is involved in is not without challenges though. “There are some disabilities that it’s very difficult to support, and we have a lot of work to do with hidden disabilities like autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia, but for more obvious physical impairments these disabilities are being looked at and designed around”.
The next stage of Neatebox’s journey will see the company use software to increase inclusivity and educate people on the needs of those with disabilities. “I constantly see situations where people with assistance dogs don’t get service when they go into taxis, venues, or shops” Gavin says. “So say a guide dog owner goes into a supermarket and the person at the door doesn’t allow them in because dogs aren’t allowed in; there are lots of ways of looking at that – you can criticise the shop and say that we have to take them to court and humiliate them, or we can look at the underlying reasons why that’s happened and educate”. Raising understanding and awareness of the needs of people with disabilities is a crucial part of the Neatebox philosophy. “Up to now education has meant that the shop has apologised, the person has been reprimanded, and they’re put through staff training; that’s great, but that’s all that’s been available until now. I thought that that’s something I could address with a customer services application”. This app involves a notification being sent to customer service staff when a user is approaching. “At that point they’re given an aide-mémoire as to how to interact with that person based on their requirements. The person downloads the app and puts in some basic details such as the disability to be aware of, and the customer service team gets information on how to interact and specific information on the visit, such as a shopping list. This gives the customer service team advice so that the initial introduction is conducted professionally and within the requirements of the law”. John then suggests that this app would be particularly useful in hospitals to inform staff how far away a patient is before an appointment, reducing anxiety and increasing efficiency.
John goes on to tell us about neighbours of his who have speech issues, and are frequently thought to be drunk by customer service staff. In this sense the Neatebox customer service app would help to increase understanding and ensure that these encounters are as dignified as possible. I then put it to Gavin that the prospective users of the app will need to be experienced users of digital technology. “If we do something today for 10 per cent of the population, by tomorrow it’s 15 per cent, and in 50 years it’s closer to 80 or 90 per cent” he responds firmly. “In 100 years it’s just the disability that means they can’t use it, such as a severe mental disability, but even then we can start looking at how the kit they carry can have AI and work out what the person needs. It’s their technology, and if the customer service team has it then we’re upskilling the customer service team just when they need it. So let’s say a person goes into a sports centre, they walk through the door, and the person behind reception and the personal trainer get a message that tells them that the person is deaf and what they need. The tenth time the user comes in the person on reception doesn’t need to look at the aide-mémoire; what they’re doing is going straight to the ‘what do I need today’ bit because they’ve learnt on a daily basis”. The customer service app also removes the need for companies to fund training, and enables immediate engagement and understanding between the user and the customer service staff. “The end-user has to understand smart technology” Gavin says, “but if we design things for today those solutions might not be relevant tomorrow”.
As the restaurant slowly fills with early-evening diners Gavin pauses to consider the journey Neatebox has been on from the implementation of the Pedestrian and Tourism Neatebox apps, to some of the major projects in the company’s future. “We’ve recently applied for a grant from the Department for Transport to release funds so that we can install crossings in Largs in conjunction with Transerv, which is very exciting because it will prove that we can integrate technology into the infrastructure of an entire town”. This returns to the firm’s central ethos of integrating inclusive technologies into the structures of our daily lives and maximising accessibility. Neatebox ultimately offer solutions which can level the playing field between people with permanent disabilities, temporary disabilities, and no disabilities at all, underpinned by a crucial understanding of the experiences of people with disabilities. As John says to Gavin, “why do I listen to you? Because you’re speaking my language”. Our conversation draws to an end, and Gavin tells us that “Stephen Gilbert is running the RI Congress in October at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, and he’s been posting about competitions where people are wearing prosthetics and doing amazing things like pegging washing on a washing line. Now jump forward 50 or 100 years – who knows where we’ll be?” Gavin Neate and Neatebox are on the crest of a major change in the very way that disability is perceived and understood.
For more people challenging perceptions, check out these articles on bespoken ...