Ready and able: disability-led food

16th March 2021 | Alison Turner

Having easy access to a wide variety of food choices and meal options is something that many of us take for granted every day. But for some Australians with a disability, accessing quality, tasty and nutritious food is not always so easy. Now a new service has been launched that aims to add more appeal, choice and accessibility to the ready-made meal space for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants.

Able Foods is a profit-for-purpose start-up established by Dylan Alcott, disability advocate, Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the Dylan Alcott Foundation. Alcott co-founded Able Foods last year with his childhood friends Spencer Ratliff and Patrick Liston. While the three had different professional backgrounds, they have all had experience with disability.

Alcott has just won his seventh straight Australian Open championship.

Building the dream team

“My dad has recently been on the NDIS,” Ratliff says. “And Patrick was in a similar situation with his dad. So, with Dylan being a disability advocate, we’ve all had lived experience.”

It was over dinner one evening that the three started talking about how they might work together. They quickly realised that there was a real gap in the market for an accessible and inclusive fresh food service tailored towards the disability community.

“While we all worked in different areas, we realised our skills complemented each other in what we were wanting to do,”Ratliff says. “I come from a marketing and advertising background; Patrick comes from a food manufacturing and distribution/sales background; and Dylan was already working with the foundation. We saw there was a real opportunity for a disability-focused, disability-led brand in the food space – and Able Foods was born.”

The company launched with more than 30 fresh meal options, snacks and fruit that can be delivered directly to customers’ doors across Australia, with the service now reaching up to 80 percent of the population. For eligible NDIS participants, the price of a meal is less than three dollars, while the cost of preparation and delivery is covered by the NDIS.

Able Foods’ website comes with an accessibility menu.

Access all areas

Because Able Foods is disability-led, the company has been in a unique position to address issues that many people with a disability face when trying to buy fresh, healthy food. If you check out the company website, you’ll see it comes with a special accessibility menu, which provides options for vision-impaired and dyslexic customers, among others.

“Our website is fully accessible,” Ratliff says. “For someone who’s vision impaired and wants to buy food online, they might go onto another meal delivery website, but they won’t be able to read it, because the right contrast isn’t there.

“That automatically locks them out of being able to use that service. And for anyone who’s visually impaired and requires Braille, we offer packaging that comes with Braille stickers.”

Not everyone has the option of being able to order food via a website, and so Able Foods also provides the option for customers to order by phone or email.

Textured Concept Foods’ remoulded spaghetti with meatballs.

Dining with dignity

For people with swallowing issues – medically known as dysphagia – Able Foods is the first NDIS-registered ready-made meal provider to offer a range of texture-modified meal options that are just as tasty and appealing as any other ready-made meal.

“Normally, what people with swallowing issues would do is take a meal, put it in a blender and purée it, and then eat it,” Ratliff says. “As you can imagine, it’s not very appetising – and it doesn’t look great either. Or if you’ve ever been into a nursing home, you might have seen the residents being given ice cream scoops of puréed chicken or vegetables.”

To provide better options for people with dysphagia, Able Foods has partnered with Textured Concept Foods, a company that makes remoulded texture-modified food.

“First they purée the food, and then they remould it and set it to look like its original form,” Ratliff explains. “So our chicken looks like chicken; the vegetables look like vegetables, but it’s just been remoulded – if you put a spoon through it, it’s purée.

“We call it ‘dining with dignity’. We think it’s not a very dignified way to eat, with scoops of puréed food on a plate. We eat with more than just our mouth; we eat with our eyes, too.”

Able Foods’ baked bean pouches are more accessible to people with disabilities than cans.

When a can is a can’t

Earlier this year, Able Foods expanded its operations to launch a range of disability-friendly baked beans, which are now stocked in Coles stores nationally. The beans come in easy-to-open, microwavable pouches, making them more accessible for more people.

“Traditionally, baked beans have always been sold in a can,” Ratliff says. “We ran a number of focus groups because we wanted to identify meals or food products that weren’t accessible or disability-friendly, and canned food was a massive one.

“We spoke to a man with cerebral palsy, and he told us he had never even tried baked beans, because he’d never been able to open them. We thought, why hasn’t someone put baked beans in an accessible tear-top pouch that can be put in the microwave?”

There are plans for more products in the pipeline, and Able Foods has entered into an exclusivity agreement with Coles, which has already implemented other accessibility and inclusivity services such as Quiet Hour. Designed in partnership with Autism Spectrum Australia, Quiet Hour aims to provide a low-sensory shopping experience by making changes in-store such as reducing noise, customer numbers and other distractions.

Doing things differently: Able Foods is committed to being disability-led.

Brand of opportunity

Along with providing tasty, nutritious meals that help people lead healthier, more enjoyable lives, the company is also committed to providing employment opportunities for people with a disability, as well as helping customers to navigate the NDIS.

“We’ve hired people with disabilities throughout our business, from our warehouse to our office,” Ratliff says. “And the NDIS can be a really tricky space to navigate; there’s a real lack of providers that really understand the space from firsthand experience.

“Our Customer Experience Manager Ashley is a self-managed NDIS participant. She knows the ins and outs of how it works. There are lots of food companies out there that do have a great service with healthy options, but we believe it should be about being able to relate directly to that customer base, and have it resonate with them.”

Alcott and Able Foods are bringing a fresh, fun face to the disability space.

Nothing too serious

Able Foods aims to do more than provide accessible food, support and job opportunities for people with a disability. The company also wants to bring a bit of fun into the equation.

“When we looked at the space, we saw that it was quite dry and clinical,” Ratliff says. “It was like when I was looking for a meal provider for my dad, who’s on the NDIS. Often, I felt like I was looking at nursing homes on these websites. All these really cheesy stock images of people in wheelchairs. It just didn’t feel human.”

The company has worked to create something that is not only disability-focused; it’s also something that the community can get behind, identify with and feel proud to be a part of.

“We want people with a disability to be able to say, ‘This is my brand’,” Ratliff says. “But we also want to be fun. We want to be different. We want to be colourful. There’s nothing sad about it. Obviously, having a disability has its challenges, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There’s no reason why we can’t be fun and have a laugh. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. And there’s no reason why we can’t exist in that space with that attitude.”

You can find out more about Able Foods at ablefoods.com.au. You can find out more about the Dylan Alcott Foundation at dylanalcottfoundation.com.au