11/06/2020

This Accessible Pregnancy Test Has Results You Can Touch

16:35 minutes

a bright pink pregnancy test stick that is larger and has a longer broader tip and textured surfaces that are easy to find and feel
The accessible pregnancy test by RNIB. Credit: RNIB

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"

Whatever answer you’re hoping for from a pregnancy test, taking one is rarely a low-stress occurrence. And for many who are blind or vision-impaired, taking a pregnancy test can be even more tricky: the tests use visual displays, and often the only solution for knowing the result is to call a friend, family member, or even stranger into a very private moment. 

The app Be My Eyes is now partnering with pregnancy test maker ClearBlue to offer volunteer services in reading pregnancy tests—but that still brings a stranger into the process. The UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind, however, now has a new design for a tactile, accessible test that could be taken privately. It’s colorful, high-contrast, and big enough to use without full sight. And the results appear as bumps that anyone can feel. 

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Gizmodo reporter Victoria Song, Blind Motherhood blogger Holly Bonner, and Procter & Gamble accessibility leader Sumaira Latif about the value of accessibility in pregnancy testing, and how a good idea might become an actual product.

Learn more about the new pregnancy test design from Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). Credit: The Design For Everyone Campaign (Subtitled) from Design For Everyone


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Segment Guests

Victoria Song

Victoria Song is a consumer technology reporter at Gizmodo in New York, New York.

Holly Bonner

Holly Bonner is founder and owner of BlindMotherhood.com, based in Staten Island, New York.

Sumaira “Sam” Latif

Sumaira “Sam” Latif is the Company Accessibility Lead at Procter & Gamble in London, United Kingdom.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In all the nerve-racking process of figuring out if you’re pregnant, taking the pregnancy test should be the simplest part, right? Pee on a stick, wait a few minutes, and interpret the lines that appear.

Or if you pay a few extra bucks for a digital test, it’s even easier. Just wait for a pregnant or non-pregnant to appear on the screen. But what if you can’t see the display? This is the case if you’re blind or even visually impaired. Science Friday Producer Christie Taylor tells this story.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Staten Island mom Holly Bonner already had a one-year-old daughter when she suspected she might be pregnant again.

HOLLY BONNER: You know, I really wanted to have one of those moments, like those TV moments the woman goes in the bathroom and takes the pregnancy test, and then comes out and maybe surprises your spouse with the good news. I also didn’t want to disappoint him if I wasn’t pregnant.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: She took two tests, one the kind that shows you lines and a digital test that translates those lines into a more straightforward pregnant and not pregnant. But she had a problem. She has severe visual impairments to the point where she identifies as blind.

With the small bit of vision she has in her right eye, she still couldn’t make out the result. She tried using a screen reader to tell her what the test result was– no luck. The test wasn’t designed with screen readers in mind. But there was an occupational therapist in the house that day working with her daughter.

HOLLY BONNER: And I run down the stairs and I’m like, I know this is going to sound really weird, but I really need you to read my pregnancy test. And I could not see her reaction, but there was that long dead silence where this lady probably thought I was out of my mind. But she looked at it, and she says, I think you’re pregnant. Then I showed her the digital one and that confirmed the pregnancy.

So yes, it was very, very strange. And I wish I had had the ability to just find out for myself. I think that it should be your choice how you want to be able to experience taking a pregnancy test. You are the one that’s carrying that baby, so you should be the first person to know that that child is inside you.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It wasn’t just that Holly felt like she’d missed out on privacy or a special moment that she wanted to share with her husband. It was also the response she got from the person who helped her read the test, as well as others in her life.

HOLLY BONNER: Well, as a blind woman, in general, I think your fertility is often something that is taboo to talk about. I myself becoming pregnant with my second child, I had a lot of judgment– one was enough, we should have stopped at one. A blind person can only handle one child.

I’ll even say that the woman that read my test that day was quite taken aback by the situation, and did you want to have another one? Were you planning on having another one? This was a person that came into my home once a week for 45 minutes, but in the moment she was the best that I had.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: For Holly, and many others she’s heard from through her website blindmotherhood.com, that judgment is all too common. And what if you’re not excited to be pregnant, but rather afraid of a positive test? Consider having a stranger, or even someone you don’t feel close to, walk you through that experience. But as Holly points out, there’s a lot that could be changed about the current lineup of pregnancy tests to make them accessible and private for the 97% of blind identifying people who still have small amounts of sight.

HOLLY BONNER: My ideal pregnancy test would definitely be something that was not white because white is very difficult to see. The other thing I would say is that the strip that women have to urinate on to find out if you’re pregnant or not, even just doing that part of the process is very difficult. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to kill anybody if they make it a little bit longer, having a good grip on it, a good indentation or some type of marking for where your thumb goes to hold the test.

And then I would like it to be either a bump-type feel to let you know if you’re pregnant or not pregnant, or something that is large enough and dark enough that you would be able to see visually, or maybe a combination of both. And even if you had to use some type of assistive technology to read it, like a screen reader or a closed circuit television, you should be able to do that yourself.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So what will it take to make a pregnancy test that’s accessible? Sam Latif, who is herself blind, works as the Company Accessibility Leader for Procter & Gamble in the United Kingdom. Their products include Clearblue’s pregnancy tests. And she says to create truly accessible products, you have to start with that goal from the beginning.

SAM LATIF: Accessibility is like an ingredient in a cake. It has to be baked in from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s almost too late to fix it. So imagine sugar in a cake. If you bake the cake and it’s set in the oven, it’s not going to do much good putting some sugar on top. It needs to be baked in. And that’s what accessibility is.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The bad news for pregnancy tests is that the big companies have already done the initial design, and starting over to make them accessible would come at a cost.

SAM LATIF: It’s a huge investment, requires millions and millions of pounds to do. And they don’t touch that kind of technology that often, if that makes sense. So making something that’s already existing accessible is quite hard.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Here’s where the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the United Kingdom comes in. They’ve designed a prototype for a pregnancy test that’s fully accessible with results you can touch, as well as see. But as Gizmodo Reporter Victoria Song has written this week, a prototype is a long way off from a product that people can find in the drugstore when they need that crucial am I or am I not question answered.

Welcome to Science Friday, Victoria.

VICTORIA SONG: Hi.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Victoria, describe, first of all, this accessible pregnancy test for us. What does it look like? What does it do?

VICTORIA SONG: It kind of looks like what you would expect a pregnancy test to look like in that it has the same stick shape and the little bit at the end where there’s the strip that you pee on. And the main difference here is that it’s much bigger. It’s much bigger. It’s colored more brightly so that it’s easier for people with low vision or vision impairment to actually see. There’s tactile bumps on it so that they can actually navigate different sections.

If you could just think of a pregnancy test that’s bigger, brighter, and has pads on it that are tactile and textured, that’s basically what this test looks like. As for what it does, it actually functions a lot like– well, I actually don’t want to say a lot. I just want to say it functions exactly like what a normal pregnancy test would be like, in that it uses a little strip. That strip detects whether there’s enough pregnancy hormone.

And then the difference is that where a regular digital pregnancy test would have an optical sensor in it that then communicates with an LCD or some sort of display to say yes or no, this one has the same type of optical sensor, but instead of moving to a display, it’s going to trigger a mechanical response, which is basically there’s a tactile pad on it, and it’ll create bumps so that that person can actually feel it and then know whether they have a positive or negative test.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And so the different bumps will tell you whether it’s positive or negative?

VICTORIA SONG: Well, if there’s bumps, that’s positive. If there’s no bumps–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK.

VICTORIA SONG: –that’s negative. Yeah.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Gotcha. So why would such a pregnancy test be necessary? Why is there a need for pregnancy tests that people with low vision can read themselves?

VICTORIA SONG: Well, if you’ve ever used a pregnancy test, there’s a lot of high tension, high anxiety that comes with that, because there’s a lot of different experiences that you could be taking. You could want to have a pregnancy, or you could not want it, or you could be superstitious. It’s a private thing. It’s an intimate thing.

And with people with low vision, that traditionally has meant that they have to invite someone else to that process. That means you either have to go to a family member, which that can be fine if you’re good with that family member, or it could extremely not be. Clearblue is actually one of the pregnancy test makers. They have a partnership with Be My Eyes, so that’s an app where a person with low vision or vision impairment can be paired with an anonymous stranger. And then that stranger can read the test for you.

Or in the Clearblue case, they’ll have someone who has training to read the test. But anytime you invite someone else into that process, you’d expect people not to be jerks, but any judgment you can give can be hurtful. And then even from people who don’t have a vision impairment, reading these tests is not necessarily easy. That’s why we have digital pregnancy tests that say yes or no, because the lines are difficult even if you have full use of your vision. So this would actually be great for people without vision impairment as well.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, so is this the first, then, accessible pregnancy test design that you’ve seen out there at this point?

VICTORIA SONG: Yeah, so when I think of accessible gadgets or accessible design, it’s something that everyone can use and is affordable. And unfortunately, no pregnancy test out there is something that everyone can use. And digital pregnancy tests, which might be easier if you have only partial vision loss, they tend to be more expensive than your regular just let me see if I can decipher what these lines are pregnancy tests. Or even just buying the HCG strips in bulk, which are very inexpensive, but that’s not an option. In my personal opinion, there is no accessible pregnancy test out there.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And to be clear, the design that we’re talking about right now that the Royal National Institute of the Blind put out is just a prototype, but the RNIB has released this design for anyone who wants to try to mass produce it. So what would it take to get this kind of test in the hands of people who do want them?

VICTORIA SONG: So there’s a couple of options. Probably the way that would most likely happen is a kick-starter. Someone with the means and the wherewithal could raise that money to get this out there. That would take a long time, because we see– I do consumer tech gadget reviews all the time, and we see lots of pitches for kick-starters, but it’s hard.

It’s hard to cover those things because a lot of them become vaporware. And vaporware is a product that is promised on these crowdfunding platforms that just never make it to the consumer. So there’s that danger if you go the kick-started route. But on the other hand, that’s a bit easier because you can go directly to the people. You can have someone, perhaps, with vision impairment lead that charge, have a really compelling story, and then get that funding.

Alternatively, a big manufacturer like Clearblue could just go, oh, yeah, this is a segment that isn’t being served. We have the supply chain. We have the branding. We have the means to make this happen. Let’s make this happen.

But a lot of times that doesn’t happen without some sort of public pressure, or campaign, or just press coverage to say, hey, you should do this because this doesn’t exist, and this prototype is cool. Let’s get together and do it. So they would just really have to feel a sense of social and corporate responsibility, in this case, to make it happen.

And they could do it. They absolutely could do it. It’s just a lot of times when you talk big companies, you start hearing things about profit margins and whether they’re going to make it back and assessments on whether enough people would buy it.

And that’s really a shame because these big companies, they could just make a few changes to existing products out there that would make it maybe not fully accessible, but better. What they could very easily do is make all pregnancy tests brightly colored so that the contrast is easier for people to see. They could make the plastic tactile so that it’s easier to navigate.

They could make them wider. It makes no difference to me, a person with full vision, to have a really fat pregnancy test that is easier to navigate if it means someone who doesn’t have vision can use it that way. So they could literally just make this device easier to navigate and use for people with partial vision.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a reminder, I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking to Consumer Technology Reporter Victoria Song about pregnancy tests that are accessible for people with low or no vision.

Yeah, and as you mentioned, these digital pregnancy tests are much more expensive without necessarily being any more accurate. But could they end up worth the price if they do incorporate accessibility features like this?

VICTORIA SONG: It could be, but then you start paying a tax because you’re disabled, and that’s really not fair. If we want to talk true accessible design, and it needs to be affordable, it’s really morally gross to ask people with disabilities to pay more for a device. And I have a pair of the Nike Adapt sneakers that are self-lacing. That would be really great for people with limited mobility in their hands.

Unfortunately, they’re $400. It’s not actually accessible. When I covered it, I was like, oh, this could be useful one day for people. But because it’s so expensive, it’s not really a piece of accessible technology, although maybe one day it will be.

In order for this to actually happen what you need is more disabled people to be in the room when they’re designing these products, because it’s very natural if you don’t have those things to contend with that you go, why would I want to voice control my sneakers? Someone who is disabled, if they’re in the room, they would go, actually, I could use that. So it’s not stupid, and you should actually think about implementing it in this way or that way. So what we really need is more vision impaired people consulted during the process when these things are designed.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you, Victoria, for being with me today.

VICTORIA SONG: Yeah. No, thanks for having me on.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Victoria Song is a Consumer Technology Reporter for Gizmodo. She’s based in New York. All right, so we have a design for an accessible pregnancy test, but what’s next? Could this lead to other pregnancy tests being designed with accessibility baked in? Sam Latif, the Procter & Gamble Accessibility Leader with a direct line to Clearblue, says she thinks so.

SAM LATIF: So this is now inspiration for any new company that would be thinking about creating pregnancy testing. This will be something that they should consider. So if they have in their scope that they want it to be accessible, they could take some of this into their new design and make it fully accessible.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Which, she says, should be a mandate for anyone designing any new product.

SAM LATIF: I think it’s imperative. The sad thing is that it’s probably not even that hard. It’s just that it’s not on top-of-mind as people don’t know what they don’t know. It’s just equality to opportunity or access to a product or a service. Now, unintentionally or intentionally, I don’t know, but we’re excluding people and discriminating against them. And it really breaks my heart to see that happen.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: For more information about the Royal National Institute for the Blind prototype pregnancy test, visit our website sciencefriday.com/pregnancy. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.

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