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The ‘bendy’ straw is a classic example of how a product aimed at a particular demographic ended up being useful to the entire population.

Andrew Davidson has been in the retail industry with Home Hardware Stores Ltd. for more than 10 years in business development, operations and performance consulting, and change management. He graduated in 2017 with an MBA from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and was his class valedictorian. This is Mr. Davidson's fourth blog for EMBA Diary.

For many graduates of an MBA program, the feeling of accomplishment can't be overstated. But earning the degree isn't an end point; it's a new beginning. Many of us now have the desire to put what we have learned into action in whatever role we find ourselves in.

As we all know, regardless of our degree, it's not that easy to simply ignite wholesale change in any workplace. It's generally agreed there are better ways to do things, and yet most change management undertakings fall short, and there is no shortage of people who resist change in practice even if they embrace it in theory. To complicate matters, the always-present concerns for the bottom line and shareholders can be a major roadblock to overcome.

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The quest for "universal design" illustrates this challenge. Universal design is about taking a broad range of needs and abilities into consideration when producing products and services so that they may be used by everyone regardless of age, ability, skill or status. It's easily enough understood, it's well-intentioned, and has a proven track record of success for business. But that doesn't make it effortlessly achievable.

You probably already use some things that have come from this practice. Have a look in your kitchen; any Oxo Good Grip products in there? How about the bathroom; is there an electric toothbrush? Suitcase with wheels in the closet? Have you been taking advantage of audiobooks on your electronic devices?

Each of these products was built on the concept of universal design and accessibility. Take the electric toothbrush, which has become widespread in homes everywhere. Its initial design was to help patients with limited motor skills and those with braces brush better than they could with a standard brush.

Good Grips inventor Sam Farber sought to design a better set of kitchen tools to aid his wife, who struggled in the kitchen because of her arthritis. "Bendy straws," which are now a staple in most family restaurants, were the result of a loving father who watched his young daughter fight with a straight paper straw while sitting at the counter of the local sweet shop.

In each case, the product was built to make life easier for the few, but it ended up being better for the many, as well.

In business, addressing accessibility can't be an afterthought to be successful. Only by focusing on accessibility from the outset of the design phase can companies ensure they build a better product or service in the end. And products and services that are better are more marketable. Period.

Some companies are already really good at this, but for many the concept is unfamiliar.

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The purpose of this blog is partly to give the concept more exposure and add to the efforts to bring universal design into mainstream thinking in business. That's also why four students of Rotman's MBA program have joined together to form Access to Success.

Together in February, Varun Chandak, Mahe Davar, Nikitha Ramesh and Natalie Eckler are launching a conference about accessibility, inclusion and universal design. They will be hosting panel discussions, keynote speakers and a case competition. MBA students from across Canada will be pitching concepts for products and services that embrace universal design and address an accessibility need.

These concepts are what have the highest potential for driving innovation and market disruption.

The event itself stands as a potential example of universal design at work. By putting together the conference and competition, the Rotman students hope to get more MBAs talking about universal design in their own schools and pushing for accessibility and inclusion to be at the forefront of decision-making.

In the long run, the conversations of those in attendance will move into offices and hallways. This may pave the way for new graduates looking to help drive change in the workplace and eliminate some of the roadblocks discussed here at the outset.

The benefits of universal design and building for accessibility and inclusion are clear. Better versions of many of the products and services we use every day lie around the corner in the offices of companies willing to embrace it. It's my belief that those very companies will also benefit greatly from the fruits of these labours.

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