The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Diana Perkins, the founder of includesign, helped design the LapSnap, which allows wheelchair users accomplish tasks more independently, such as grocery shopping and laundry, while still being able to use both hands to maneauver their wheelchair.
Q: What is the LapSnap and how does it work?
Perkins: The LapSnap is a collapsible, patent-pending carryall designed with and for wheelchair users. It allows them to carry items hands free — meaning they can use their hands solely to maneuver their wheelchair. With a padded base, the LapSnap rests comfortably on your lap and includes an adjustable strap that can be fastened behind your back, under your legs, or through the arms of your chair.
Q: How did you come up with this idea?
Perkins: One afternoon, I was chatting with my friend Sarah as she ate an apple. There were no trash bins around, so she had to take the core with her to throw it out. As a wheelchair user, Sarah needs both hands to maneuver around. She tried to put the apple core on her lap, but it kept rolling off. Sarah ended up asking me to carry the trash for her instead, even though it was clear she would have preferred to do it herself. In that moment, I wondered how else our inaccessible world makes life unnecessarily challenging for Sarah and other wheelchair users.
While taking an engineering capstone course at Brown University, I worked with some peers to invent the LapSnap. We worked directly wheelchair users to refine our ideas and test out prototypes. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we would meet with our project partners to watch how they navigated shopping at the grocery store with and without the LapSnap.
Q: How is the LapSnap a better option than a tote, shopping basket, or cardboard box?
Perkins: Both a tote bag and a box (and one of the readily available plastic shopping baskets) don’t attach to a person or wheelchair. So, there’s nothing stopping the bag or box from becoming unbalanced or sliding off when using your hands to move your wheelchair. A full tote bag hanging on the back of your chair is a hazard (it could unbalance the chair) and isn’t convenient (you have to twist around to access the contents, and not everyone has that range of motion). Like a recyclable tote bag, the LapSnap is also environmentally friendly and reusable.
Q: What about the electric shopping carts?
Perkins: While they are useful for people who are unable to walk long distances, they are not a viable solution for full-time wheelchair users. To use a motorized shopping cart, a user must transfer themselves out of their personal chair and into the cart, which many can’t do independently. Also, using an electric shopping cart requires a user to leave their personal chair unattended while they shop. Should a wheelchair be taken or damaged, its owner may be unable to leave the store.
Q: What challenges did you face in design and product development, and how did you overcome them?
Perkins: Since a large portion of our target market is immunocompromised (and I am too), we were no longer able to continue in-person user testing [during the pandemic]. Instead, the includesign team adapted and completed dozens of virtual interviews with wheelchair users. After analyzing user feedback, the team decided to initiate a nationwide user testing run. So, I sewed the initial batch of LapSnaps on my personal sewing machine, eager to send the product out to more users.
Over the course of four months, we gathered valuable insights through Zoom check-ins, online surveys, and videos of product testers completing daily activities with the LapSnap. The team’s original project partners had identified grocery shopping as one of the most difficult challenges in their day-to-day lives. But an unintended and welcome result of our trial run is that our testers started using the LapSnap for doing laundry, gardening, cleaning, going to school or work, and transporting pets.
Q: What challenges for you foresee in the near future?
Perkins: Although the Americans for Disabilities Act was passed into legislation by Congress over 30 years ago, as a society, we have been slow to make progress. The disability community is often overlooked. A consistent challenge for includesign has been having non-disabled people doubt the problem that the LapSnap is solving. We are aiming to be a leader in creating a world where individuals with disabilities are recognized and prioritized at each stage of the product development process. And we are educating people about the disability community and their needs through social media outreach and partnering with organizations like RAMP (Real Access Motivates Progress).
Q: Can anyone purchase a LapSnap now?
Perkins: We launched a Kickstarter campaign in May to introduce the public to the LapSnap, and we hit our fundraising goal in just one week. The capital raised will fund the first batch of professionally manufactured LapSnaps and will fuel other business areas including marketing, distribution, and reducing future manufacturing costs.
After the Kickstarter preorders are fulfilled, the LapSnap will be available for purchase on our website, TheLapSnap.com. The LapSnap will also be sold in the Independence Cafe run by Bridges, a boutique selling products made by and for people with disabilities. Currently, we are working to expand our reach by partnering with grocery stores and businesses who will offer LapSnaps in their stores. (Business interested in learning more about accessibility or partnerships can email TheLapSnap@gmail.com.)