“It is up to us to make things a bit more accessible”
Practice owner, Simon Berry, and Neatebox founder and CEO, Gavin Neate, discuss the introduction of a new accessible solution to support visitors with disabilities
Could you tell us about Neatebox and the WelcoMe app?
Gavin Neate (GN): (pictured with COO Allan Hutcheon) WelcoMe was launched in 2018 by Neatebox. With the development of personal technology solutions like the mobile phone and the work that companies like Apple were doing to ensure they were accessible, I envisioned a world where disabled people could be more included if given the right solutions.
As a former guide dog mobility instructor with Guide Dogs for the Blind, I trained people in how to use guide dogs and as they got closer to qualifying with their new dog, I would increase the distance between myself and the new partnership so that I could see how they would cope on their own. Observing handler and dog from a distance, I noticed how staff interacted with my clients. I was struck by the lack of consistency in how people were communicated with, and realised that traditional staff training, even if it had been given, did not necessarily prepare staff for in-the-moment interactions.
With over 13m disabled people in the UK, each with their own specific needs, it was impossible to prepare a staff member for the situations that they would encounter. With 75% of those living with hidden disabilities, staff were reliant on the visitor self-declaring a condition if they wanted it to be taken into consideration.
One day whilst fixing my washing machine with the help of a YouTube video, I realised that if I could get information into the hands of staff members in advance of a person walking through the door, then they could not only be linked to video training, but also top tips and even messages from their visitors as to what they wanted to do or buy on arrival. By linking the visitors’ mobile phone to their destination, I found it was possible for the phone to send a message to the customer service team purely by the visitors’ proximity to the building. And WelcoMe was born.
In a world where few do, we aim to be the differentiator
What are some of the key challenges for people with disabilities in accessing High Street services, and for staff in meeting those needs, that this app seeks to address?
GN: A persons’ disability can be a barrier – not just for the person themselves but also for the staff member interacting with them. In a recent campaign, the charity Scope promoted the need to ‘End the Awkward,’ having identified that it is staff awkwardness when interacting with a disabled customer that creates a barrier to effective communication. Even when a staff member was confident, it was possible to unintentionally discriminate, with 75% of those questioned stating that they had received poor customer service and even left shops without making a purchase.
WelcoMe ensures that not only is it possible to begin a relationship with mutual understanding and empathy, but it also empowers the disabled customer by placing their general and specific needs at the centre of the relationship.
It is worth noting that of the 13.5m disabled people in the UK, 75% are living with hidden conditions and unless they decide to self-declare to a staff member it is incredibly challenging for the staff to interact in a way that may improve the relationship. WelcoMe keeps any declaration of disability between the visitor and the staff member.
Could you tell us about the initial conversation you had with Simon? How did you go about installing, trialling and launching the platform in an optical practice?
GN: I met Simon after we had both been invited to present at 100% Optical’s Tech Bites webinar during lockdown. I was presenting WelcoMe and Simon was presenting his Visual Fixation System. It was obvious that Simon took an innovative approach to his sector and we talked outside of the event, purely as we had mutual interest in each other’s entrepreneurial journey. After I demonstrated WelcoMe, Simon explained that he was keen to trial the system and the wheels were very quickly set in motion. The system itself is set up online within a day. After a couple of training sessions Simon Berry Optometrist was live on our platform and ready to accept WelcoMe app visitors.
For many disabled people, especially those who may have been shielding or feel more vulnerable to infection, it is imperative that that they know they are safe before they even arrive
How did the experience of implementing the technology in an optical practice compare to other venues?
GN: The WelcoMe service remains fundamentally the same wherever it is installed. The major difference with Simon was that he was already innovative in his mindset. This made ‘selling’ the idea of a method by which he could improve customer communication and service so much easier. We are shortly launching the service with two NHS hospitals working within this sector, which has underlined to us the need to ensure that we are promoting the advantages of good communication across the entire health and wellbeing sector. As our population ages and we are increasingly faced with age-related conditions, and as disabled people find more of a voice through social evolution, it will become not only more important to find more efficient ways to communicate but also to do this in a more equitable manner.
How do you think this app could be particularly beneficial in an optical practice setting? Particularly in a post-COVID environment?
GN: Every customer and staff member needs to feel safe as we attempt to find our way through the current crisis. For many disabled people, especially those who may have been shielding or feel more vulnerable to infection, it is imperative that that they know they are safe before they even arrive. WelcoMe is predominantly a communication tool designed to improve relationships. Its ability to adapt to any situation that the venue finds itself in – from a staff shortage, to a power cut or even a pandemic – are built into the management system. We also want a venues’ new client to come back again, as if they are meeting a friend or at the very least someone that knows how best to serve their needs. In a world where few do, we aim to be the differentiator.
For those that haven’t yet considered the accessibility of their practice, could this app offer a starting point?
GN: WelcoMe can be up and running within a day. It is quite possibly one of the most cost-effective steps a business can make, even if it has never thought about access and inclusive practices previously. The platform engenders a feeling of engagement and community and we have found the positive experiences felt by both visitors and staff have created a foundation on which a business can transform the service it delivers.
People with disabilities or learning disabilities shouldn’t have to feel anxious about walking into a supermarket, wonder if they will be able to get a coffee somewhere, or if there will be an accessible toilet
How does it feel to be the first optometrist in the world to install the Neatebox technology?
Simon Berry (SB): It’s a great feeling to be the first optometrist to install the Neatebox technology. I think it is such an essential bit of kit that it should only be a few years before it is commonly used everywhere. It’s nice to be the first to introduce it to our industry.
Having met through the Tech Bites session, we had just been talking to Neatebox about how we would implement it and get it into practice. We tested it over a few weeks and all the tests went really well, the patients who tried it have loved it. Now it has officially launched in practice so patients with any disability, or parents of children with a learning disability, can use the app if they are visiting and we can be prepared for them.
How does the app work in the practice setting?
SB: Anybody that works with people with disabilities or learning disabilities knows that preparation is the most important thing. If you can prepare yourself, the clinic, and the staff, then everything goes much more smoothly.
I feel that people with disabilities shouldn’t ever feel disadvantaged when they go to the shops, or an airport, or similar venues. It is up to us to make things a bit more accessible for them.
With this technology, if someone has an appointment with me, they can download the WelcoMe app. They will go through a couple of questions we have set up and they can add any specialist requirements.
When a patient registers on the system, we get an email that tells us all their requirements. Then, when they are 200m from the practice, we get a message saying that the patient is approaching to give us time to implement anything we need. For example – a partially sighted person might want to be met at the door or a patient with autism might request a pair of ear defenders.
How does the introduction of the technology support your aims to offer an accessible practice?
SB: The technology is particularly helpful in the training of the staff. While my staff are trained, there are certain conditions they won’t know about. So the email the practice receives will list the person’s requirements and there will also be something staff can click on to find out more about the condition and how to handle certain situations.
Similarly, if we have a locum covering, you don’t always know whether they have training or experience in working with people with learning disabilities. Having this link means there is training and something they can read through to understand how to deal with somebody. It is brilliant, makes life easier and makes me feel more confident that my staff can deal with a situation.
What are some of the key features of the app that are particularly helpful to the practice?
SB: We have autism kits in practice which carry sensory toys, ear defenders and different ways to engage a patient. So, if I have an autistic patient in the practice who ends up having a meltdown, then we go and get the autism rescue pack for them. The way we have previously dealt with the situation is that we would go and get the pack when there is the need. With Neatebox, we can have that pack ready and be aware that the patient might have a meltdown. It makes things more organised.
The biggest adjustment post COVID-19 is the wearing of face masks. If a patient can’t wear a mask because of a medical reason, they can tell us through the app and we will know not to challenge them.
What does the app mean for your practice and patients?
SB: This system makes patients feel more comfortable. I have worked with people with learning disabilities for years and when you meet a new family, they can seem slightly terrified. They have to describe a medical condition that is often very complicated; they have talked to lots of different medical practitioners about it and they are recounting that story. They don’t know what I’m like, or how I will react to the conditions. This app takes all of that away. It also means we are more prepared and the patients and team are more relaxed.
People with disabilities or learning disabilities shouldn’t have to feel anxious about walking into a supermarket, wonder if they will be able to get a coffee somewhere, or if there will be an accessible toilet. They should be able to find these things.