Fifty million Americans have some sort of physical limitation that makes it hard for them to use tools or function in environments designed for the able-bodied. When they look for products that make their lives easier, they often find that those products are, in a word, hideous. When building contractor Abbie Sladick, 43, founder and president of Abbie Joan Enterprises in Naples, Florida, suggested to an elderly client that she install a grab bar in her new marble and glass-block bathroom, the woman told her she'd rather fall than let her friends know she had one. "Those were the words that created a product," says Sladick, who founded a new company, Great Grabz, which has sales of more than $350,000 in its third year. Forget white plastic: Great Grabz designs and manufactures stylish grab bars in materials like brushed nickel to match the look of homes, hotels and other buildings. "Our bars are a beautiful accessory, not an eyesore."

"Fifty million is a lot of people," says Valerie Fletcher, director of Adaptive Environments, a Boston educational nonprofit that promotes design geared to all users. "It's not just people in wheelchairs. You have to think beyond mobility. Think about hands, eyes, ears, stamina and other issues." Fletcher emphasizes that the opportunities to fill a niche in this field are everywhere. From can openers to canes, products should be both functional and stylish.

Getting Started
Thinking of starting a business in the inclusive design arena? Follow these tips:

  • Be creative. Product and service ideas are everywhere, says Valerie Fletcher, executive director of Adaptive Environments, a Boston nonprofit that promotes design for all users. The first thing entrepreneurs who want to enter this market should do is look around them--and drop their preconceived notions about what a person who has limitations on their abilities needs. "Pay attention when you're shopping, traveling, eating--whatever you're doing--to the things that could be better," she says. Visit Adaptive Environment"s website for education, links to others in the field and fresh ideas.
  • Learn as much as you can. Abbie Sladick, 43, learned much of what she needed to know about forming Great Grabz (she was already the president of a $3.5 million remodeling company)--a Naples, Florida, business that designs and manufactures stylish grab bars for homes, hotels and other buildings--by qualifying as a National Association of Home Builders "Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist. "This gave me a starting point on my research and education," she says. "The more I learned about the changing demographics in our country, the more I realized that this is truly the wave of the future in construction and consumer products."
  • Find a mentor. Since Sladick was veering into a totally new kind of business, she sought mentors from SCORE, a source of small-business counseling and education. "I met with a retired professional who had been in manufacturing," she says. "He asked great questions and really helped me with my business plan." Sladick found that many other people were willing to help her with startup ideas--all she had to do was ask.
  • Invest in great promotional materials. Be sure to line up photographers who can show the beauty of your inclusively designed products, not just their functionality. Sladick also made sure her website was designed to showcase these products beautifully--and included photographs of people, as well. "We looked at so many other sites that just show products," says Sladick. "This does not evoke the emotional response that we wanted."