Push to get a grip on unfriendly packaging

Hard-to-open packaging targeted as disability groups get busy

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Call for accessible design emphasises need for fresh thinking, inclusivity.


"Seals on milk bottles. Needed a pointed knife to lift and stabbed myself in process. Live by myself so no one to ask unless I go to a neighbour, which is embarrassing."

"Jar of jam. Couldn't open it. Had to wait until I saw my brother to open it in another country town. My problem is I can't eat things if I can't open them. Live on my own..."

"To open a glass jar I have to boil a kettle. Then I hold the jar upside down over the sink while pour boiling water over and around the lid. This presents a risk of scalding."

These are just a few examples of hard-to-open packaging that Aussies living with a disabling condition confront every day. In this case, it is people with arthritis..

And while poor design is frustrating for everyone, it has a profound impact on those with a disability, potentially undermining their health, independence and self-esteem.

But a push for relief is under way by an alliance of 11 trans-Tasman health consumer organisations.

The Accessible Product Design Alliance, which advocates to government and industry to improve access to easy-to-use products and packaging, has released a joint statement highlighting the struggles its members face.

It says accessible design is "a process that aims to make products and packaging easier to use for all consumers, regardless of their level of ability".

Its benefits include fostering an inclusive community where products are targeted at all consumers.

"Many of us live with the constant frustration of not being able to open easily what appear to be the simplest of items," says MS Australia national advocacy co-ordinatorAndrew Potter, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years.

"Many household and personal items come in boxes and packages that are too difficult to open - often we just give up!"

The statement reports some disturbing findings:

  • One in every two Australians have injured themselves opening packaging, including deep cuts and chipped teeth.
  • An Australian study on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, which found that difficulties opening medication bottles was a major impediment to adherence to prescribed treatment.
  • Poor eyesight can make it difficult for older people to read product information on packaging. This can hinder their ability to read safety precautions in the use of household products with harmful chemicals.
  • Difficulties in reading use-by dates on food packaging or dosage instructions on medication can also put their health at risk.
  • Hard-to-open food packaging has been found to contribute to malnutrition in vulnerable older people. Even single-serve foods used in hospitals were often difficult to open for many patients.
  • Ninety-two per cent of consumers reported spilling or damaging a product when trying to open the packaging, But industry perceived that only 25 per cent of consumers would report this experience.

The statement says "inaccessible products and packaging "can cause unnecessary physical pain or discomfort, stress and frustration, and can undermine a person's health, independence and self-esteem".

Also: "Measures to improve the availability of accessible products and packaging offer new opportunities for government and industry to support inclusivity and independence for people with disability as well as a more positive consumer experience for all."

Alliance members expressed deep satisfaction after the release of the statement.

Stroke Foundation chief executive Sharon McGowan said: "People living with the impact of stroke often experience reduced functionality in their arms and hands which can make it difficult to navigate everyday products and packaging.

"We believe that by mandating inclusivity in product design, more people living with disability will retain a level of independence.

"We look forward to seeing what innovative and creative solutions our manufacturers will develop to help the 20 per cent of our community who experience physical challenges."

Cystic Fibrosis Australia chief executive Nettie Burke said: "CFA strives to emphasise and elucidate the problem of invisible illness.

"Health equity is impossible in a world where so many people struggle with hidden obstacles and mass market consumer packaging is designed for only one kind of ability profile.

"We are proud of the work that the alliance is doing to publicise and rectify this imbalance."

The organisations that form the alliance are Arthritis Australia, Arthritis New Zealand, Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Cystic Fibrosis Australia, Huntington's Australia, MND Australia (Motor Neurone Disease), MS Australia (Multiple Sclerosis), Muscular Dystrophy Foundation of Australia, Parkinson's Australia, Stroke Foundation of Australia and Pain Australia.