Ergohacks was founded as a partnership between husband-and-wife team Chris and Lily Ellis. Based near Stonehenge, they work from a modest home office (i.e. the living room) where they live with their 5-year old daughter and two cats. This is the Ergohacks story.
Our story begings with a can opener.
We were nearly still newlyweds. We had recently secured a tenancy on our dream house, a little country cottage outside of Bristol with funding provided by my newly minted consultancy business.
On a cold winter’s morning in 2006, Chris was in a serious motorbike accident on his way to work. It was the typical scenario which at the time was also a bike-awareness TV ad. A driver didn’t see him, pulled out of a T-junction and unable to swerve enough, he hit the side of the car, came off his bike and his helmet cracked open as his head hit the edge of the pavement.
He sustained a comminuted fracture of the left tibia. Looking at his x-rays, I counted the chunks of broken bone and stopped after 24 because it was a rather depressing thought. He also sustained a traumatic brain injury and it was almost a year before he was able to walk unaided again.
It was the morning after his release from hospital that I found myself in the kitchen with the can opener. It was a thing of beauty, bought to look good hanging on the wall of our country style kitchen and mainly used by Chris because of my hand issues.
I have EDS/JHS and a tendency to dislocate fingers and my wrist when I try to do things like use a manual can opener. The cupboards and fridge was bare – there hadn’t been time to think about food when I had been driving to hospital the last few days and doing crazy things like throwing our lovely bed over the bannister because again, with joints that easily dislocate, carrying it down the stairs wasn’t a realistic option. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would dislocate both shoulders, wrists and three ribs in the process, but needs must.
The last instant food in the cupboard was a tin of rice pudding. Chris had developed a fever and hadn’t eaten anything since his hospital lunch the day before which could not be a good thing. He was confused, confrontational and incapable of following the simplest instructions, such as “Please open this can.” Head injuries are serious things with serious long-term impact, which I was just beginning to realize.
I couldn’t get the tin open. I couldn’t grip the can opener. I couldn’t apply enough pressure for it to make the first dent. Even if I could, I couldn’t apply enough force to turn it long enough to make a big enough cut. If only the handles were a little wider, I found myself thinking. If only the handle wasn’t made of shiny, slippery metal. If only there was something I could wrap around the handle to make it more grippy. If only I had purchased an electric can opener instead.
It is an idea that stayed with me over the coming months as Chris struggled to adapt to a new life with chronic pain, disabling headaches, mood and personality changes and I to the role of carer when before I was the cared for.
I didn’t know where to start looking for helpful things.
Chris’ work only paid 50% of his salary as sick pay and he nearly lost his job over the following months.
I lost our new business (he was responsible for many of the administrative tasks and with my own chronic health issues, I couldn’t maintain both our work loads as well as a full-time care role) and had to take a job at an NHS call centre at a tenth of the hourly rate I was used to. I worked unsociable hours, 8-hour shifts between 6pm – 6 am for time and a half.
The bust and boom cycle is not limited to economics or the world of business and after nearly a year of shift worker at night and carer by day, I had a shift work induced sleep disorder, uncontrolled life-threatening asthma attacks, chronic migraines, frequent fainting spells and unable to keep up my physiotherapy, multiple joint dislocations every day. I gained weight on steroids for my asthma, a terrible diet of take-out and salty crisps and stopped exercising.
A few months after that, Chris was back at work, but I was unemployed, couldn’t walk, couldn’t dress myself and ended up in a wheelchair with a social services carer coming round to heat up ready meals for my lunch. Chris had to work 12-hour days 6 days a week to make ends meet now that I was unemployed.
Over the next decade, we discovered that hitting rock bottom was easy, falling is after all aided by gravity, but climbing out of a pit is much harder.
I still thought about that morning with the can opener.
I remained passionate about the idea that with access to the right products, we could live a happy, comfortable, independent life. Our house wouldn’t need to look like a hospital ward, we wouldn’t need strangers coming and going at all hours, at one point we cycled through 80 temp agency carers in 6 months, and most of all, we could be financially, physically and emotionally independent without the need for constant assessments and reassessments where someone else makes all the decisions down to the finest details of personal care.
Adaptive equipment is expensive. So we began looking for alternatives. We started with technology and discovered that a combination of business products like Dragon naturally speaking and gaming products, like a high DPI mouse and mechanical keyboard had twice the spec, triple the service at a fraction of the cost of accessible technology.
We bought a £100 old gaming PC on Ebay, refitted it slowly and when we added the software and peripherals, I discovered that not only could I regain much independence via the internet, I could play a game as well. GlovePIE became my new best friend. After years of isolation, I logged into World of Warcraft, a huge thing for someone with a serious social phobia and before long, I had made friends.
I started a blog. My first post was a review of a can opener. The second, an introduction to the World of Warcraft.
The blog grew in popularity. I was interviewed by Wow Insider, a big deal for me and I received daily emails asking me how to make games more accessible. We started an accessible gaming blog, dedicated to accessible game reviews and published articles about hardware and software and guides about putting together gaming systems that made games more accessible.
I still thought about that can opener. As much as I was enjoying playing games, there was more to life than gaming. I wanted more independence outside of virtual worlds. I wanted a normal life and as a parent of a little girl with complex health needs, I wanted to create a home and help shape a world where she would not share the experience of social welfare and disability that I had gone through.
“What about Ergohacks?” Chris said one morning over coffee.
“What?”, I said, my brain still asleep.
“What about calling our web site Ergohacks? You know, ergo for ergonomic and hacks for the quick and rough solutions we could provide?”
“What do you mean rough?” I said indignantly, “I don’t want to provide rough solutions, I want elegance, style… glamourous solutions. Find things that work and that look pretty. I think pretty is more important than you realise.”
“Okay…” he said, “hacks as in…”
“I know! Sometimes you have to break the mould to make something better. It doesn’t have to be us that does the hacking. What if we feature products where designers took the time and effort to break away from tradition and make something new or excellent. I like the idea of hacking tradition. Let’s go for it”.
We posted our first article on ergohacks.com on 5 September 2013, “Making a more accessible USB flash drive with Sugru*”. It wasn’t the start of a business or a pivotal moment, it was just planting the seed of a long ago harvested idea.
Life has thrown more time (and money) consuming challenges at us, but when we can, we work. We want to grow Ergohacks as a community, a place where anyone can find innovative, inclusive, ergonomic, ecological, cost-effective products and services.
Now that you know us a little bit better, have a look around. If you like what we do, join in. Leave a comment, find us on Facebook and Twitter or send as an old fashioned email. We want this to be your place too, so let us know what your favourite things are or how we can improve.
Help us make the world a better place one well-designed product at a time.