Lucy Rout is the founder and CEO of Tabuu. Tabuu is a pill case that removes the stigma around taking medication. The portable case is good for the environment and fashionable. Rout founded this company because of her personal experiences after life-changing surgery. She was determined to solve a problem that she and many other chronically ill and disabled people face. Rout also happens to be filling a gap in a large and mostly untapped market.
In 2020, Rout had her digestive system reconstructed to remove pancreatic cancer aged 25. After this surgery, doctors told her that she would need to take 20 tablets a day for the rest of her life.
Rout searched everywhere for a thoughtfully designed, stylish pill case to keep her medication in and was disappointed to find only flimsy, plastic, highly medical options on the market. “In a world where you can buy almost anything online, it made me feel both as a consumer and a human being, completely forgotten” said Rout. Rout searched the media for open, honest conversations around medication and representation of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities going through similar journeys, and she couldn’t find them.
Routs solution was to build a brand on a mission to start the conversations people are often too uncomfortable to have and provide beautifully designed, practical products for the millions of people worldwide who deserve so much better than having their needs ignored.
There is a magnitude of stigmas surrounding medication and about those who take them. When Rout was told that she would be chronically medicated, her initial response was that she would try to find a way around having to take it, “I didn’t want it to become part of my identity. Overnight I had gone from being a healthy 25-year-old to a patient, and then someone needed to take a lot of pills. I’ve since spent a lot of time apologizing for having to take my tablets in public or escaping to the bathroom to do it in private for fear of making a scene” Rout mentioned.
When Rout acknowledged the unnecessary shame surrounding medication, she soon realized she had nothing to apologize for. Instead, by apologizing, she felt like she was doing a disservice to others in similar situations.
“In my experience, medication is seen as a dirty word. We feel awkward and apologize for taking it, we shove our plastic pill cases and blister packets to the bottom of our bags, and subsequently, we do the same with the conversation. We are made to believe that there is something “wrong” with us, and we pride ourselves on being people who “don’t need to take tablets”.” Said Rout
Despite millions of people worldwide taking medication, many people still feel anxious or apologetic. “Whether taking medication for mental health, menopause, digestive aid, chronic pain, or any other reason, we need to work hard to open up the conversation to remove the stigma of it being a negative, unspoken thing” Rout stated.
Accessibility is essential to creating an inclusive environment. “Disability or no disability, we all have accessibility requirements, and much like we would ask for something like dietary requirements when planning a social event, it’s on everyone to stand up and take responsibility for making sure things are truly inclusive. It’s on all of us to send a clear message that everyone is welcome to the table. I also believe assumption/entitlement plays a huge role. If someone is doing something differently to you, be it they don’t come into the office as often as you, they communicate differently to you, whatever that may be, that is not then your invitation to publicly question them or ask about it unless invited to do so. Disabilities are not always visible, and the likelihood is you do not know the bigger picture of what may be going on with someone. A thoughtless comment can go a really long way to making someone feel isolated. My disability is only visible in a bikini, and I noticed a huge difference in how I am treated when it’s hidden versus when exposed on a recent beach holiday. I was asked about five times a day by people I didn’t know about my scar or what was “wrong” with me, which, having come from a previously non-disabled body, really shocked me. We would never ask someone how much they weigh or how much money they had in their bank account, so why did people now suddenly feel it acceptable to ask about my medical history without being invited to do so? We need to all take personal responsibility for creating safe, inclusive spaces and be mindful of the impact our words can have on others” said Rout.
So often, non-disabled people congratulate disabled people for achieving “despite being disabled”, which is a great example of everyday ableism. Rout says, “I recently pitched my product to a small retailer; the owner loved the product, and it is now stocked within her stores. On investigating my website after placing the order, she emailed me to say, “I had no idea what had happened to you. Your story is so inspiring, you should have said”. My fundamental point here is that, first and foremost, like anyone living with a disability or chronic illness, I am a human being with something to say. I have a fantastic product addressing an apparent unmet market need, and I am single handily running what is already growing and scaling into a successful business. I also just so happen to have an invisible disability, an invisible disability that drove me to be the most resilient, understanding and determined version of myself and is the reason my product exists in the first place. We have a lot of work to do in educating people and shifting the narrative. Disability does not mean weakness. Often it will mean we have had the opportunity to develop strengths that many others haven’t. Nor does it mean we are your inspiration porn simply for having one, nor are we a token gesture for ticking a diversity bucket for inclusivity. The conversations will only start to change as more people with disabilities/chronic illnesses are at the table to influence and educate.”
Being a disabled entrepreneur comes with its pros and cons, Rout mentions that “without my chronic medication or new invisible disability, I would have never had the confidence or resilience to start my business. When running a business, there is no manual, guidelines or set plan of how you’re going to do it, you learn a lot very quickly, and you adapt and overcome. And for me, it was the same experience with recovery and adapting to my new body. You learn to start putting one foot in front of the other until things get done, and I can honestly say that following my experience, I am an awful lot more resilient and fearless than I ever was before. My experience has also given me more to fight for. The number of injustices and things that aren’t right for people like us, be it from a product representation perspective, media representation or beyond, really opened my eyes to how much needs to change and gave me the confidence to try and drive it. In terms of cons, I haven’t found any. My experience made me grow up very quickly, opened my eyes to a world I had never experienced and ignited a passion for driving meaningful change. Yes, hurdles come with my new way of living, but I’ve never felt more inspired and unstoppable.”
There is a myth that disabled people do not want to be stylish or sexy. Rout is tackling this myth head-on, for example, she says, “on my first-ever pitch to a non-disabled, non-medicated independent store owner, he told me my business would fail because my products were far too good quality, and people didn’t need something nice to keep their tablets in. When I asked him why he sold so many variations of bracelets or lipstick, he responded that “everyone uses those items, and they are important to people”. For the millions of people worldwide taking medication and me, the lack of thoughtfully designed products available on the market sends a very clear message that our needs don’t matter. We deserve to have products that reflect our style choices, sustainability preferences and personality. To influence at scale, we need the bigger retailers to take accountability for promoting and stocking products that represent the needs of people with disabilities. Not only is this fundamentally important for an inclusivity perspective, but there is also a very clear market need and from a commercial standpoint a viable opportunity.”
It is clear Rout is selling a product with purpose. She advocates for an often overlooked community and is working to make a cultural shift with her passion, lived experience and innovation. “Becoming an entrepreneur was a way of fighting to advocate for people like me, a form of resistance in taking action to create products that quite frankly should have been made years ago. Being an entrepreneur has given me an opportunity to try and influence at scale. Mass retailers need better representation in product ranges for people living with medical conditions, and in building a solution, I’m hoping to open eyes to this unmet need whilst providing a beautiful, commercially viable solution,” Rout concluded.