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Olay’s new lid was made for disabled people. Too bad you can’t find it

Diane Davis



Skin-care giant Olay recently released a face-cream lid ostensibly designed to be “accessible for all,” the latest iteration of consumer goods positioned to serve disabled people. 

Olay announced its limited-edition lid prototype developed for “consumers with a wide range of conditions, from dexterity issues and limb differences, to chronic issues causing joint pain and vision impairments,” with fanfare. To publicize the new packaging, it launched an ad campaign including video and a lush multi-page advertisement in the Sunday print edition of The New York Times

The easy-open lid includes four features: a winged cap, extra grip-raised lid, a high-contrast product label, and Braille text for “face cream.” It is designed to fit on four creams in Olay’s popular Regenerist line, and is available exclusively on the Olay website—not on store shelves

[Screenshots: Olay]

Upon closer inspection, it’s clear this launch is more of a PR tactic than a genuine effort to make more accessible products—and Olay is far from the only brand to take that route. Inclusive design is not typically acknowledged as the marketing campaign that it often is. It is difficult to find a product created through an inclusive design process that has succeeded beyond its hype. 

Olay's easy-open lid with Braille
[Photo: Olay]

Adaptations to existing products and new flexible features are increasingly being launched by the largest corporations in the world. Nike, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble are among the companies that have launched “accessible” or “inclusive” products seemingly “for all.” Yet, important elements of these launches have consistently faltered. 

According to the campaign, Olay’s design team incorporated insights from consumers “with a wide range of conditions” and met with external experts—including disabled journalist Madison Lawson—as well as team members with personal experiences to inform the making of the lid. 

Despite this seemingly comprehensive outreach, disabled consumers have responded with skepticism. Emily Johnson, a tech and social media journalist, said in an interview that “most ‘accessible’ products aren’t about disabled consumers at all.” Rather, they’re a public relations strategy, used to retain the loyalty—and praise—of non-disabled consumers, and frequently fail to consider disabled consumers as an audience in brand messaging. For instance, the Olay print ad was shared online without alt-text, thus barring blind and low-vision consumers from fully accessing information about it. Johnson also points out that the wing caps don’t differ in shape or size, preventing consumers from differentiating between the four Olay jars it fits by touch.

More puzzling is the Braille text, which is limited to the cap. Only a fraction of legally blind people actually know how to read Braille, and there are other, potentially more useful ways to convey information. “I could scan the barcode with my phone and get much more specific information than ‘face cream,’” said Elizabeth Hare, a blind scientist who also works on accessibility in STEM and uses screen-reading software. As with Braille, however, it can be tricky for many blind and low-vision people to locate a QR code or barcode, which shows the challenge of claiming the universality of this or any other accessibility feature.

It is interesting that Olay chose to print “face cream” in Braille, given what another Procter & Gamble subsidiary, Herbal Essences, did in 2018. They chose to differentiate shampoo and conditioner bottles with raised stripes and dots after learning from a focus group how few people know Braille today. Olay’s use of Braille reads as an empty gesture; as Johnson notes, “labeling different products with the same label and no details in Braille is useless.” 

What does Braille communicate if it’s not actually informative? Perhaps that Olay’s winged lid fails to effectively symbolize disability, so it incorporates Braille as a way to visually demonstrate its commitment to inclusion. 

Limited edition for all? 

Olay’s brand line, “open for all,” is typical of how disability-centric designs are pitched and sold to the public. The moniker “for all” does two things: first, it signals to industry by aligning the brand with the virtues of inclusive design. “For all” has become shorthand for the inclusive design mantra “solve for one, extend to many.” Second, it inspires consumers, who have learned to associate the language of “for all” with corporate diversity and inclusion narratives. 

It is disingenuous to claim an accessible product is “for all” when its distribution channels are less accessible than those for the mainstream product. And yet, inclusively designed objects tend to get released as limited editions through select channels—like how Olay is only available on its website and not on store shelves.

A box of Legos
[Photo: Lego]

In 2019, Lego announced Braille Bricks, created for blind and low-vision children. Rather than making Braille Bricks commercially available, Lego limited the release to qualifying institutions. American Printing House, the U.S. distribution partner for Braille Bricks, said in an email that Lego aimed to ensure that these kits remained with schools and educators, so “they won’t end up dusty on a shelf at home or with collectors.” 

Lego’s concerns about collectors were later echoed by Nike, which released limited quantities of its Go FlyEase sneakers, rendering the accessible shoe inaccessible to disabled consumers, especially when it appeared on the resale market for upwards of $3,000. 

[Image: Nike]

Some product announcements aren’t even accompanied by a limited release. Degree Inclusive’s so-called “world’s first adaptive deodorant” touted features for users with limited sight or arm mobility, including a hooked grip, magnetic closures, a large roll-on applicator, and Braille on the packaging. Despite its cross-platform announcement, the product still has not come to market. This case raises concerns about how brand launches of accessible products serve as public relations strategies to elevate the image of the company, rather than making any tangible corporate and cultural changes for disability inclusion. 

Degree Inclusive packaging
[Photo: Degree]

How can products that are supposedly designed with disabled people, for disabled people, continue to so profoundly miss the mark?

Olay said that the company “met with consumers with a wide range of conditions,” leaving us wondering how meeting with disabled consumers materially differs from the focus group Herbal Essences cited in 2018. What, if anything, has changed about how P&G consults with and compensates disabled experts? (Olay and P&G did not respond to requests for an interview or to answer questions via email.) If brands can no longer claim to design “with” diabled people and cite focus groups as central to that process, what are they doing instead?  

In the case of Unilever’s Degree Adaptive, it credited “disabled co-collaborators” in its process—a group assigned “hyphen-status.” It’s a distinction that harkens back to an NCAA status coined in 1964: “student-athlete.” This term made student-athletes exempt from employment provisions, including workers’ compensation. For those designated with hyphen-status, the title following the hyphen lacks validity, reflecting the power imbalances within inclusive design—leading to failed outputs such as the notorious “disability dongle.”

For the “co-designer” or “user-expert,” the knowledge of the disabled expert is diminished by the hyphen. People who tend to get relegated to hyphen-status have an important role to play in creating equitable design, because they are more inclined to have a political, rather than corporate orientation to disability. These are folks who answer to their communities rather than conveying brand-approved messaging. 

No product is truly going to succeed beyond its hype until brands begin to recognize the power imbalances embedded in inclusive design processes. Corporations will not be incentivized to do this until consumers begin asking where the expertise came from, and whom the output is intended to reach. 

Liz Jackson is a disabled advocate, designer, and a founding member of The Disabled List, an advocacy collective that engages with disability as a critical design practice. Jaipreet Virdi is a disability historian, scholar, activist, and assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History.

Technology & Innovation

The Download: Trump’s potential climate impact, and the end of cheap helium

Diane Davis




This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Trump wants to unravel Biden’s landmark climate law. Here is what’s most at risk.

President Joe Biden’s crowning legislative achievement was enacting the Inflation Reduction Act, easily the nation’s largest investment into addressing the rising dangers of climate change. 

Yet Donald Trump’s advisors and associates have clearly indicated that dismantling the landmark law would sit at the top of the Republican front-runner’s to-do list should he win the presidential election. 

If he succeeds, it could stall the nation’s shift to cleaner industries and stunt efforts to cut the greenhouse-gas pollution warming the planet. The IRA’s tax credits for EVs and clean power projects appear especially vulnerable. But lots of other provisions could also come under attack. Read the full story. 

—James Temple

The era of cheap helium is over—and that’s already causing problems

Helium is excellent at conducting heat. And at temperatures close to absolute zero, at which most other materials would freeze solid, helium remains a liquid. That makes it a perfect refrigerant for anything that must be kept very cold.

Liquid helium is therefore essential to any technology that uses superconducting magnets, including MRI scanners and some fusion reactors. Helium also cools particle accelerators, quantum computers, and the infrared detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope. 

“It’s a critical element for the future,” says Richard Clarke, a UK-based helium resources consultant. However, it’s also played a critical role throughout the history of technology development, while remaining in tight supply. 

As part of MIT technology Review’s 125th anniversary series, we looked back at our coverage of how helium became such an important resource, and considered how demand might change in the future. Read the full story.

—Amy Nordrum

How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

“This is one of the least visited places on planet Earth and I got to open the door,” Matty Jordan, a construction specialist at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, wrote in the caption to the video he posted to Instagram and TikTok in October 2023. 

In the video, he guides viewers through the hut, pointing out where the men of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 expedition lived and worked. 

The video has racked up millions of views from all over the world. It’s also kind of a miracle: until very recently, those who lived and worked on Antarctic bases had no hope of communicating so readily with the outside world. 

That’s starting to change, thanks to Starlink, the satellite constellation developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to service the world with high-speed broadband internet. Read the full story. 

—Allegra Rosenberg

Wikimedia’s CTO: In the age of AI, human contributors still matter

Selena Deckelmann is the chief product and technology officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and manages Wikipedia.

There she not only guides one of the most turned-to sources of information in the world but serves a vast community of “Wikipedians,” the hundreds of thousands of real-life individuals who spend their free time writing, editing, and discussing entries—in more than 300 languages—to make Wikipedia what it is today. 

It is undeniable that technological advances and cultural shifts have transformed our online universe over the years—especially with the recent surge in AI-generated content—but Deckelmann still isn’t afraid of people on the internet. She believes they are its future. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann 

The two stories above are from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live on Wednesday—subscribe now to get your copy!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The Supreme Court will decide whether states can control social media 
It’ll start hearing arguments today about whether laws aimed at controlling online platforms in Texas and Florida are constitutional. (WP $)
Here’s what you need to know. (NYT $)
Texas’s law is dangerous. Striking it down could be even worse. (The Atlantic $)

2 Celebrities are being ‘deepfaked’ for adverts
AI-generated videos have them endorsing and promoting things they’ve never even heard of. (BBC)
+ These companies show why the next AI wave won’t revolve around chatbots. (Fast Company)

3 Inside TikTok’s live money-making machine
Live streaming can be hugely lucrative—for both the creator and TikTok itself—but there’s a dark side too. (ABC)
+ Influencers are getting younger and younger. (NBC)

4 A vending machine was secretly scanning undergrads’ faces
As privacy violations go, this is a pretty insidious and unnecessary one. (Ars Technica)
Computer scientists designing the future can’t agree on what privacy means. (MIT technology Review)

5 China is set to dominate the future of electric cars 
Thanks, at least partly, to years of careful investment and planning by its government. (Insider $)
Why the world’s biggest EV maker is getting into shipping. (MIT technology Review)

6 People are reporting cracks in their Apple Vision Pros
Bad news about these headsets just keeps on coming. (Engadget)
Apple is exploring developing even more wearable devices. (Bloomberg $)

7 Digitally resurrecting your loved ones might be bad for you
Researchers claim it could create unhealthy dependence on the technology. (New Scientist $)
technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready? (MIT technology Review)

8 Could you endure living on Mars? 
Physical concerns aside, it’d wreak havoc on most people’s minds. (NYT $)
These scientists live like astronauts without leaving Earth. (MIT technology Review)

9 A man allegedly made $1.8 million eavesdropping on his wife’s calls 
US regulators claim he traded on confidential information he overheard during her remote meetings. (The Guardian)

10 Meet the man whose job is to keep an ice cream factory cool ????
Engineering challenges don’t come much more delicious than this. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“I understand that SpaceX is possibly withholding broadband internet services in and around Taiwan — possibly in breach of SpaceX’s contractual obligations with the U.S. government.”

—Republican Representative Mike Gallagher makes an explosive claim in a letter to Elon Musk, CNBC reports. 

The big story

ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like.



March 2023

Whether it’s based on hallucinatory beliefs or not, a gold rush has started over the last several months to make money from generative AI models like ChatGPT.

You can practically hear the shrieks from corner offices around the world: “What is our ChatGPT play? How do we make money off this?”

But while companies and executives want to cash in, the likely impact of generative AI on workers and the economy on the whole is far less obvious.

Will ChatGPT make the already troubling income and wealth inequality in the US and many other countries even worse, or could it in fact provide a much-needed boost to productivity? Read the full story.

—David Rotman

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ If you want to be happy, fill your days with ‘firsts’
+ May these chatty cats bless your morning. 
+ Please, don’t make tea in an air fryer.
+ This writing exercise could help you to better understand what you want from life.

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Technology & Innovation

How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

Diane Davis



a smiling person in a t-shirt types at a telex

Helpful hams and secret codes

By 1957,Admiral Byrd was recognized as the world’s foremost expert in Antarctic exploration and was leading America’s Operation Deep Freeze, a mission to build a permanent American presence on the continent. The US Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, were deployed to build McMurdo Station on the solid ground of Ross Island, close to the first hut built by Captain Robert Scott in 1901. 

Deep Freeze brought a massive military presence to Antarctica, including the most complex and advanced communications array the Navy could muster. Still, men who wanted to speak to loved ones at home had limited options. Physical mail could come and go on ships a few times a year, or they could send expensive telegrams over wireless—limited to 100 or 200 words per month each way. At least these methods were private, unlike the personal communications over radio on Byrd’s expedition, which everyone else could listen in to by default.

In the face of these limitations, another option soon became popular among the Navy men. The licensed operators of McMurdo’s amateur (ham) station were assisted by hams back at home. Seabees would call from McMurdo to a ham in America, who would patch them straight through to their destination through the US phone system, free of charge. 

Some of these helpful hams became legendary. Jules Madey and his brother John, two New Jersey teenagers with the call sign K2KGJ, had built a 110-foot-tall radio tower in their backyard, with a transmitter that was more than capable of communicating to and from McMurdo Sound. 

To save money, a code known as “WYSSA” offered a broad variety of set phrases for common topics. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling.”

From McMurdo, the South Pole, and the fifth Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf, ham operators could ring Jules at nearly any time of day or night, and he’d connect them to home. Jules became an Antarctic celebrity and icon. A few of the engaged couples he helped to link up even invited him and his brother to their weddings, after the men returned from their tours of duty in Antarctica. Many Deep Freeze men still remembered the Madey brothers decades later. 

In the early 1960s, continued Deep Freeze operations, including support ships, were improving communication across American outposts in Antarctica. Bigger antennas, more powerful receivers and transmitters, and improvements to ground-to-air communication systems were installed, shoring up the capacity for scientific activity, transport, and construction.  

Around this time, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions were improving their communications capacity as well. Like other Antarctic programs, they used telex machines, sending text out over radio waves to link up with a phone-line-based system on land. Telex, a predecessor to fax technology, text messaging, and email, was in use from the 1960s onwards as an alternative to Morse code and voice over HF and VHF radio. On the other side of the line, a terminal would receive the text and print it out.

The Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions sent text over radio waves and developed a special code known as “WYSSA” to save money on the expensive telex rates.


In order to save money on the expensive per-word rates, a special code known as “WYSSA” (pronounced, in an Australian accent, “whizzer”) was constructed. This creative solution became legendary in Antarctic history. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling,” and the code offered a broad variety of predetermined phrases for common topics, from the inconveniences of Antarctic life (YAYIR—“Fine snow has penetrated through small crevices in the huts”) to affectionate sentiments (YAAHY—“Longing to hear from you again, darling”) and personal updates (YIGUM—“I have grown a beard which is awful”). 

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Technology & Innovation

Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis




Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.


Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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