COVID-19 has had a massive impact on everyone, and the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) had to change and adapt to get through the crisis.
In this podcast, Gordon McCullough, the CEO of RIDC, discusses the important role the organisation has played in bringing disabled people's voices into the COVID conversation. With over 2000 disabled members, the RIDC Consumer Panel has provided vital insights that have helped inform and shape government policy during the pandemic.
Gordon explains why the RIDC with its Consumer Panel is uniquely placed to assist manufacturers and service providers in ensuring that their products and services take account of the needs of disabled people.
The vaccination programme now means that life should begin to get back to some kind of "normal". Gordon is optimistic about life after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted. He believes that transport, technology, and ageing well present challenges and opportunities for disabled people. RIDC will primarily focus its resources on these areas in order to provide an understanding of what needs to change.
Phil Friend 0:11
Hello, everybody. It's Phil Friend here, and welcome to another edition of the Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos show. This is the place where disabled people come together to describe the things they use to overcome some of the issues that their life throws at them. And we do this conversation in partnership with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers. Now today, we're doing something slightly different. We're not talking to one of our panel members or a disabled person, and we're going to be talking to Gordon McCullough. Now, Gordon is the Chief Executive of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers. And we're going to talk to him about what the RIDC is about, and so on and so forth. So I hope you enjoy it. So hello, Gordon, how are you?
Gordon McCullough 1:00
Hiya Phil, I'm very well.
Phil Friend 1:02
Good to hear good to hear. So you're presumably working from home and things like that, like the rest of the population?
Gordon McCullough 1:11
Yes, I've been tied to my laptop for the last 10 months and the various tables and perched in different parts of the house. But it's um, it's been an interesting experience.
Phil Friend 1:22
One way of describing it now Gordon you started, we were just talking before we recorded this, that you've been with the organisation for about two years getting on for two years now, a year of that has been spent in lockdown, hasn't it? You've not really been into the office and stuff. But tell us a little bit about your role, what your job entails, I think people have various views about what CEOs do. But what's your take on that?
Gordon McCullough 1:51
I'll try and keep it clean. given some of the things we've been through, and I have to keep this in my head, this isn't a second interview. given you are my chair, but I suppose to see my role has been over the past couple of years is really the give the organisation direction and focus is to really set the agenda of trying to get the insights and the voices and the experiences of our panel in front of businesses, government, whoever. And it really is it's about corralling all of the different talents and skills and ability in the organisation to do that, basically, as well as make sure that we've got money, and we've got a roof over our heads and things like that. But it's mostly about setting the strategy and making sure that the team and the panel can do what we were set up to do 50 odd years ago.
Phil Friend 2:45
So we'll come back to the panel in a bit more detail in a minute. But the idea I mean, we were set up 50 odd years ago to do research around disability issues. And you spent the last two years rewriting our strategy and that kind of thing. So what are the key the key issues now that we're going to be focusing our attention on
Gordon McCullough 3:09
what I, what I wanted us to try and do and with you and the board we came to that agreement was to really focus on where we could have the most impact, to look at the things that were causing the biggest challenges or barriers to disabled people, and how we could use our position to influence and bring about change, there were three areas that we think we thought we could have the biggest impact on where the biggest challenges were. So the first one was around transport. And that's the accessibility of any mode of transport and the fact that a lot of people are disabled by the fact that they can't get on a train or they can't fuel their car, or there are new things happening in the future. And are they being designed with disabled people first and foremost? Or will they have to go back and be fixed as it were later on? So we thought transport was really important. We've had a long track record of working with transport companies and regulators and doing that. So that was a fairly easy decision to make. The other area, which is the really exciting one, and we'll talk a bit more about that is our own technology, and not the technology and of itself, but it's the user experience and the interface between the person and the bit of technology. So as we've become used to Zoom and Teams and all the different things, we really wanted this bit of our strategy to look at that experience between the technology and the person and how things have been designed, that again, covers everything it could be from financial services, it websites, apps, heating control, there's a wide range of things. These are very broad areas, but it just allows us to focus our attention on it. And the final ones about Ageing Well, what we really want to do is work with different companies to think about the ambition and the sort of the hope and aspirations of older people can have and don't design things that are boring for them. That's more of a longer-term ambition for us. But it's something that is a big, big area that we want to try and tap into.
Phil Friend 5:14
So we talked, we mentioned the panel and the importance of the panel now. It goes a long way back. But we've always had communication with and been in touch with disabled people. But over the years, we've begun to bring together a cohort of people to give us actual support. Now, when you joined the organisation, I think the figure was well about 1000, something of that sort 800 or less, what was the current state of play with the numbers of people on our panel?
Gordon McCullough 5:47
Well, by 10 minutes before we started this call, another person joined. So we've got 2006 people on our panel. So not that anybody keeps a record of these things. But I think that's the largest standalone pan-disability panel in the UK. And the numbers are great, and they matter. But having a large panel like that is really important for a number of reasons. One, it means that we hear more voices, that the collective wisdom of a group of 2000 people is stronger. And it gives more credence to some of the work that we're doing, because it's such a broad base of people right across the UK, and right across all different types of disability. So the more people we have, the stronger the voice and the bigger influence and impact that we can have. And also it means that we can do much more interesting work that it's not just the same group of people, we're asking to do things. So that can be mystery shopping, it can be surveys, it can be testing out products, I was about to say in a lab but we haven't done that in quite a while but do it over Zoom. And it again, I keep coming back to its about trying to get that experience and that voice. And that understanding of some of the barriers and challenges that people face to help make things accessible for everyone is really what the panels there to do. And we've said this numerous times to one another, that we wouldn't exist or there wouldn't be much point to us without the panel.
Phil Friend 7:13
Let's just look at one example. For example, I mean, COVID hit, we went all into lockdown. We as an organisation through you became concerned about how the impact that would impact on disabled people, we approached our panel, and what kind of things were you able to demonstrate? Or what kind of research, in brief, were we able to do because we have the panel.
Gordon McCullough 7:39
When lockdown hit, we went almost straight out to the panel and asked them what were the immediate impacts on them. Because of the restrictions. Clearly, nobody was travelling, but things about shopping. At the very beginning, it was about getting online shopping, and those people who are deemed to be vulnerable or who needed additional assistance and just the barriers to actually accessing that for a lot of people came through very strongly through our research. And as the restrictions went on, there were issues around access to hospital and GP appointments and prescriptions, we found one in 10 of our panel weren't able to access prescriptions in the way that they had in the past. And so it was the sort of cumulative effect of the lockdown on people's lives. Particularly in our panel, they were getting worse and worse and with that anxiety increased. But the biggest thing was about seeing friends and family. That was the all the way through the four waves of the survey that we did it was that loss of connection, that loss of companionship and being able to see people and those particularly who were shielding, that was coming through a really very, very big area of concern, which is what we would sort of if you didn't do that sort of work, you would assume that would happen. But we use that information to feed into other larger disability charities that were speaking to the government. And they were getting a direct line into the experiences of disabled and older people in a way that the larger research companies weren't able to do. They couldn't move quite as quickly as us and they didn't have the trust and the insights that we could gather. But I think the fact that we were able to get so many responses so quickly and get so many people involved in it. It allowed us to share that information. And that may have helped some of the responses from the supermarkets from the bus companies or from GPs and pharmacies later on down the line. We're only one small organisation with a panel but I think all of us felt we needed to feed people's experiences into the wider response that was going on at the time.
Phil Friend 9:47
What I think surprised us both was the size of the response we were getting from the panel, hundreds of people responding to the questions you were raising and that added serious weight to the results. And people sat up and took notice. And things did change, certain things did change. And I think it's tremendous to be able to say that because the panel needs to know that what they're doing is making a difference. Do you have sort of an example of that,
Gordon McCullough 10:15
I suppose one piece of work, we're doing now, we were funded by the London Community Response Fund, to gather people's stories of COVID. And the impact the restrictions, not through a survey, but through more almost like a diary of what is going on in their lives over a three week period. And we've done a lot of different ways using Zoom and using an online community board for people. It's like a chat room, they put up stuff. And through video as well. It's very hard to research unless you've got a direct line into the government or whatever to show the contribution of the attribution of what you've done. All I know is that when we were speaking to those with who we share the information with whether that was with the Guardian, Frances Ryan used a lot of our research or it was through the weekly briefings that some of our research fed into through the Disability Charity Consortium. The information was compelling enough to suggest that something was going on something needed to be done.
Phil Friend 11:13
We do know, don't we, I mean, whether it was our direct impact. But we do know that the supermarkets did take very seriously the feedback they were getting about people not being able to do online shopping and stuff like that began to prioritise people. So there was a change whether I mean, I'm sure we did contribute information that helped with that. But you can never really know, can you but without the panel, none of that would have been possible. So I think we really do owe a great deal to our colleagues who I hope some of whom I hope are listening to this and need to know that we do seriously value what you do and the amount of effort you put into, helping us get the data. You mentioned in the strategy, the tech side of things, which is obviously a great interest of this, this little podcast, what stuff is going on in that place now that you're beginning to think about look at developing ideas around?
Gordon McCullough 12:13
Well, one of the things that really interests me, because I'm a bit of a tech geek like you Phil it's all around the smart home technology and the use of I don't want to say her name because it'll go off in homes
Phil Friend 12:24
The "A" lady
Gordon McCullough 12:29
In a lot of ways that is a massive step forward in terms of accessibility and using stuff in the house, it frees up people and the things we're looking at at the minute are the apps that control the home heating systems, we all know from the stats that disabled people spend more money on heating, the non-disabled people, we've looked at the hardware as were in the house, in terms of thermostats, which are those which are accessible, the radiator valves are very hard for some people to turn and which ones are accessible or not. So we've looked at the traditional stuff, we're now looking at the apps which control the smart home technology around the heating controls whether it's Hive or Nest or some of the other more obscure ones that I didn't know existed, but there are hundreds of them. And we have been doing user testing with our panel to see which ones work really well for them. Which ones are overly complicated or fiddly or just don't work. And what are the features which you would be looking for for an app and a system to control your heating at home that is accessible and usable and inclusive and things like that? So that's the I'm really excited about looking more at smart home technology and how is it more accessible, or how it could become more accessible? And what are some of the workarounds that the people are using it for but it was never its intended purpose? But people have found a way that that's a very helpful thing to do. And again, this podcast has highlighted over 17 or 16 episodes is just how different ways people find and work through something and use things that the designers never even thought that they will be used for at all. So there's that. But we're also looking at websites. And lots of people look at the accessibility of websites, what we're really interested in is are they actually inclusive? Can everybody use them? And how can the design be fixed? So whether that's for a building society or for a large telecom company, we're now beginning to try and understand that experience between that interface between the website and the person and how that can be improved. So it's a lot of that sort of technology we're looking at as well. And really, it's it, it can be anything around technology and a person. What's the barrier stopping somebody from using it. How can that be improved and then how can we as RIDC and our panel, come up with some solutions for those companies, because a lot of the time, it's a lot of younger people who don't really have a real insight into the experiences of disabled or older people when they're designing things. And really, that's what we want to do is just bring that voice and that experience to that process.
Phil Friend 15:21
We did have as a trustee, a woman called Jill Allen King, who I'm name-checking because Jill is a legend, she's blind, she sat on our Board. And I always remember her at every board meeting, saying. Don't forget those people that don't use apps and tech and all that stuff. So in some ways, your earlier remarks about our strategy, for example, transport and Ageing Well, that's where I think we can do quite a lot of work around those people that aren't up to their eyes in tech, like me, and you are but are still trying to find ways where they can download stuff in readable formats off websites or things like that, you know, Jill was very good about reminding us that, you know, a newsletter for many people in a printed form was the way they wanted to consume information rather than always having to go online. So it's it's a very tough challenge for you and the research team to bear in mind all the time that people are using things in all sorts of different ways, aren't they to get what they need?
Gordon McCullough 16:28
Oh, you're absolutely right. And I think Jill's point that she made, a lot of the Board meetings has been thrown into sharp relief by COVID. The fact that there is not just digital skills, but there's digital poverty in the country that that digital by default, logically seems a very sensible way to go. There's a lot of benefits to it, but there's a lot of dis-benefits to it as well. And BT and Virgin, for example, are moving away from the old landlines, the copper wires, over to voice over internet tourism, which basically means everybody will have a broadband box router in their house, which on the surface seems a sensible thing to do. But it's the impact on those who don't have the internet at the minute or just have a landline and have care alarms or other devices attached to the landline, that certainly I never really knew how much actually runs off a landline in somebody house. What's the impact on people like that? And how do you mitigate against disabling people or making people even more vulnerable by a change in a system? And I think that's going to be one of the big, big issues to come over the next few years. Not a lot of people know this is happening. And I think it's really important that the voices of particularly older people, but also disabled people are heard and how this is rolled out and how people are well informed about it to make the right choices and aren't just left worried and anxious about losing something that they trust, a great deal. And that's, I think of my mum back in Belfast 84 she doesn't have broadband, she's a landline. And that's sort of her link to the outside world, particularly now at the minute. And I know that she would freak out if she was told she was going to be given broadband put into the house. So you're absolutely right. But the pandemic has really shown up the gap that exists for a lot of people between what is thought to be the logical sensible way to go digital by default.
Phil Friend 18:31
What do you think? Post-COVID is about? I mean, obviously, transport presumably will begin again, people will start travelling, so some of our work there will become more important. But what projects do you see us getting really are getting our teeth into once this dreadful thing is kind of leaving us?
Gordon McCullough 18:51
Yes, COVID has meant people can't travel, and that there is a journey, the work we did in sort August/September looking at travel confidence amongst our panel. well over half said there not sure they'll ever go back to using public transport again, after it's all cleared up. But actually, that's not the point. I don't think I think the fundamental point is that public transport as it stands, is pretty inaccessible for most disabled people anyway, and they don't use it. We've just finished a survey of four and a half thousand disabled people across the UK and we asked Why do you not use public transport? The main reason was it's overwhelming and it's inaccessible to me, so I'm never ever going to go close to it. So I think we have an opportunity around transport and RIDC has an opportunity working with the regulators, the bus companies the train operators to really think about what is an accessible public transport system that really allows disabled people to use it in a way that non-disabled people do. So I think that's a big, big challenge. And I don't think that should be forgotten about just because of COVID. In terms of the projects, I think we'll be working on once, once the restrictions and stuff are lifted, what this is done, you're right, it's fast-forwarded, more interactions, like we have week to week over Zoom and things. And that's how I think that's got a real benefit for our work. Where in the past we were with, we held a testing session or workshop or an interview, we tended to hire a hall or a room and went there. And we had to make sure that it was accessible. And we had to make sure that people could get there safely and get home safely. And there's a lot of time and effort went into doing that. Because it's really important to us, obviously, but it's, it's expensive, it takes a long time, you're asking people to make a journey that they wouldn't necessarily have to what this platform using Zoom and Teams and all the other digital video, I don't even know the name, video conference, things, allows us to do workshops, and allows us to do user testing remotely. And so it's more convenient for everyone involved. And we can do an awful lot more and involve an awful lot more people. So I think if the work we're going to be doing in the future, this using Zoom, and online technologies to do that type of work that will continue and increase I think, certainly, in the beginning, when we were doing focus groups on Zoom, everybody was a little bit reticent about it, it was there's a different way of doing it. And once everybody sort of got used to it, not least us because we've never done before, because we always said we couldn't have to be in the room. So I think that there is a danger though, that you lose that human contact. So we talked about not having an office, and we are not alone in that. Everybody is thinking about giving up their spaces but you need space to meet, to be collaborative, to be creative. So it's that human interaction, I don't think we can lose it post COVID the types of project, I really hope that we'll do an awful lot more about digital technology and apps and how the supercharging of the digital world because of COVID has happened. The voices and experiences of disabled and older people aren't forgotten in that rush to get everything online. And we're now used to it. So that's okay, everybody can do Zoom but not everybody can not everybody likes sitting talking to a laptop. Not everybody is comfortable with 50 other people all looking at them through the computer screen. So it's the work we'll do, will be around technology, it will be around transport, and it will be about Ageing better. I don't know what those projects are going to be. But it'll certainly take its lead from the experiences that we've had over the last year.
Phil Friend 22:49
I mean, I think you mentioned smart homes and things earlier on in this conversation. We haven't touched on a sort of climate change, for example, which has been left somewhat behind at the moment, because understandably, because of the focus on COVID. But climate change smart homes, that kind of thing. Do you think there's going to be a real, you know, a real push to make our homes far more climate-friendly? And if so, how that might affect disabled consumers?
Gordon McCullough 23:23
I think smart home technology gives people independence within their own home. I think that particularly around heating and as the Scope Extra Costs Commission showed I think its five hundred pounds or something around that disabled people tends to spend more than non-disabled people on heating. So there's obviously a climate impact there. But I think if there's any way to make heating somebody's home more efficient and drive those costs down. Nevermind all the additional costs disabled and older people have to pay for all the other things. They need to make sure that they're independent and get over all the barriers that are put in the way. I think that's really important. Where I think what I want to say is around electric cars and that push towards being green and the environmental movement around transport. I think disabled people are being left way, way, way behind. So we did work last year on electric charging electric car charging points, and how actually inaccessible they are. And that is a new infrastructure and a new way of doing something that has been completely just completely ignored that whole group of people who want to be good citizens and do something that is environmentally good but can't because there are barriers being put in their way. Whether that's through lack of drop curbs or in a charging point, very stiff cables and charging equipment. Or just sort of very neglectful not very thoughtful design and planning by garages by leaving electric car charging points out in the open, not covered, or people just leaving the cars and electric charging points. So it's, it's that it's the decisions that non-disabled people will make about well, I'm going to choose that because that's good for the planet. So I could be electric cars or anything versus the compromises that a disabled person who wants to be a good citizen and do something good for the planet has to make because nobody has given a thought to their needs or their experiences in designing things. And we describe the electric charging car world as a bit like the Wild West, or a bit like the Betamax versus VHS, where all I've got different charging types of type two, and a Tesla supercharger and all those types of things. But all of that hasn't given any insight or any thought to the needs of disabled drivers. And there are 1.6 million blue badge holders in the UK 600,000 people on the Motability scheme, there are only 23 electric cars available on the Motability scheme, I think I might be there might be a few more and I but it's hard for I think in a number of ways for disabled people to be that good citizen and think about the planet because of barriers that are put in their way to access.
Phil Friend 26:20
What you've done is very neatly, go right round to the beginning of this conversation, which is why we were set up. And that was not just to give advice and our views about products, but to be involved at the very beginning of their design. So if disabled people perhaps have been in the room, when they were thinking about the car charging points, we might have ended up with something very different, which ultimately, will be much more accessible and will save money. I do remember famously where people have introduced products that couldn't be used, and then they had to retrofit through the kind of redesign. So it's very expensive. So, Gordon, we're really nearly at the end of our time. But I do just want to say two things really, first of all, thank you so much for spending the time with us. I know how busy you first-hand, you are very busy, which is great because we want to be very busy. But I suppose the final thing to say is that what would you like our panel to do in relation to the work we're doing? I mean, recruit more people to stay in touch?
Gordon McCullough 27:29
So I think I've got, I would ask the panel, three things. The first one is to bear with is that point about telling them about the impact that they have had through answering our surveys or attending a focus group. We're trying to get better at that I don't think anybody's ever been involved in research knows that's one of the fundamental things you have to do is tell people what happened as a result of their input. So bear with us, I want to get much much better at showing that link between somebody taking ten minutes to fill a survey in and something happening. What I didn't mention to begin was this, this strategy is about prevention. It's about preventing the need for us to exist. So yes, it's good. We're very busy. But actually, I wish we weren't, I wish we didn't have to be a wish that the idea of involving disabled people right at the very beginning, as you say, to prevent having to go back and fix something with the standard wasn't even thought about it was just that's what you do. So first request just bear with us, we will get better at telling you about the difference you have made by being involved on our panel. The second one is if you know anybody who is interested in giving their views on a wide range of topics or doing mystery shopping, or just uncovering some of the barriers and challenges that people face, send them to our website, www.ridc.org.uk. they will see our consumer panel, click on it join online or give us a call. We don't you don't have to do it online. But recommend a friend or family member. We don't bombard you with stuff. But actually, the thing when we do get in touch, it's quite interesting. And it's I think a lot of people you read some of the stories on our website, other panel members and what they have done and what they get out of it. It can be a very rewarding experience. And I think I've been really touched by the commitment and the energy that people bring to being involved in the different research that we do. And the third one is to keep answering our surveys and keep being involved. Because the more people who bring their wisdom and their experience to the work that we're doing, the stronger and more robust the research is that then helps us with our reputation when we are trying to get businesses, government and other agencies to really think about disabled people.
Phil Friend 29:49
Gordon, it's been tremendous. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us and spending time with us. It is a difficult time. I know that you face many challenges, but it seems to me like we are, one by one, we're getting over those challenges and turning some really interesting stuff out that I hope will benefit everybody. But thank you very much for your time. Take it easy.
Gordon McCullough 30:16
Thank you for lets at one ambition fulfilled. I've been interviewed for a Phil Friend podcast now it's just Desert Island Discs and I'm done.
Phil Friend 30:24
You're too kind. Take care Gordon and thank you very much.
Gordon McCullough 30:29
Phil Friend 30:30
If you've got some gadgets or things that you use to overcome the difficulties that your disability may cause, please let me know and maybe we can arrange for you to appear on the show. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can contact me via the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers at www.ridc.org.uk and thanks for listening