Ken Chua, founder of (these)abilities, wants us to stop tiptoeing around persons with disabilities

This entrepreneur is levelling the playing field for the disabled

The founder of (these)abilities, Ken Chua, wants us to stop tiptoeing around persons with disabilities

by : Amyraa Zukiman

To view persons with disabilities as a liability is a mistake. Within each of them is a vast amount of human potential to be discovered – a realisation that spurred Ken Chua to form (these)abilities in 2015, a design and technology company dedicated to serving persons with disabilities.

However, unlike conventional non-profit groups, Chua and his team are not looking to draw on social sympathy to make a dent in the persons with disabilities community. Instead, they are focussing on levelling the playing field for persons with disabilities at work, home and during play. Chua zeroes in on the company’s modus operandi and his journey as its founder.

Please describe (these)abilities.

Ken Chua (KC): We are an inclusive innovation agency that works with organisations to design and build inclusive products, services, environments and campaigns to serve not only persons with disabilities, but to give everyone else a delightful lived experience as well.

Understandably, the news of Project Artemis got a little lost in the hubbub, which is a little sad, because it’s incredibly exciting. Then-newly-installed CEO Markus Duesmann announced he would be creating a business division within Audi that would report to him directly, tasked to “develop a pioneering model for Audi quickly and unbureaucratically”.

We adopt a participatory design model; working closely with experts, the persons with disabilities community and our clients in every stage of the project, from ideation, production to testing. It’s really all in.

What sparked an interest in the disability space and led you to start the company?

KC: It began in junior college, where I was volunteering at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore. I was exposed to kids with a spectrum of disabilities — some were deaf, visually impaired or had a cognitive disability and others had poor psychomotor skills. I was curious about their everyday lives.

A couple of weeks and a few persons with disabilities friends later, I knew that I wanted to do something in the disability space. There was so much potential there. Hence, after graduating from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, I kickstarted (these)abilities.

Society has to move from a sympathetic to an empathetic model.

Tell us about some of your significant projects that proved to be impactful.

KC: During the 2015 ASEAN Para Games, we initiated the idea of an add-on bus accessory called the Plug-N-Play Safety System to increase the wheelchair capacity on buses. The Land Transport Authority approved the idea and we mass-produced and installed them on several buses. Eventually, we managed to transport all 397 wheelchair athletes to the stadium for the opening ceremony.

We also produced Keyguard 2.0, a hard plastic ‘protector’ that sits on a keyboard and has holes for every key. It is designed to allow people who experience hand tremors, have athetosis, muscular weakness or poor fine/gross motor skills to rest their hands on the keyguard while typing. The intention is to reduce the strain on their upper limbs and prevent them from hitting the wrong keys.

In 2016, you held a Grab Lab. What was that about?

KC: Sometimes, organisations or even persons with disabilities themselves approach us for solutions to an inclusivity issue(s) they may be facing, and that’s when we call for a Lab – short for Lowering All Barriers – session. In this instance, we worked with Grab to make its app more inclusive.

For this project, we got our designers and developers to work with blind and deaf participants. Through our research, we found out that most of them struggled to inform drivers of the multiple stops they had to make during a ride due to the communication barriers between a deaf rider and a hearing driver. They therefore always had to key their stops in the ‘notes’ section, which drivers might miss. As such, the multi-stop ride function was conceived.

What’s in the pipeline?

KC: We have been working on an inclusive tourism project for travellers with disabilities. It has received support from organisations and agencies, but COVID-19 happened. We’ll see how it goes.

In this line of work, you’re constantly in search of fresh ideas. Has it been challenging?

KC: I try to observe other social, business and political phenomena as much as possible because I believe that it is important to widen my peripheries. That way, I am better at connecting more dots beyond my domain.

I also do constant visualisation of a society that is authentically inclusive in terms of business, sports and arts, to name a few. These exercises help me identify existing gaps and possible solutions. Additionally, my persons with disabilities friends teach me a lot and I constantly uncover neat insights that lead to ideas from them.

With that, how does the future of the persons with disabilities community look like to you?

KC: It is good that many are increasingly aware of the persons with disabilities community and are wary of the terms they use on them. It shows that people acknowledge and consider their feelings. But beyond that, society has to move from a sympathetic to an empathetic model, which will unlock a massive human potential we have yet to realise.