The Forgotten Consumer: People with Disabilities

We talk regularly about people with disabilities as an untapped labor pool, representing more than 10 million people in the United States, but people with disabilities also represent the third largest market segment in the U.S. Globally, people with disabilities are estimated to represent over a trillion dollars in spending power.

This market becomes even larger when you consider that by creating an environment that appeals to people with disabilities, you are able to also appeal to their friends and family members. Those who have a loved one with a disability can share stories of times they went to a store, restaurant, or show and experienced non-inclusive practices or rude treatment. The same is true about customer service centers for everything from cell phone services to pharmacies. Just as stories about how people with disabilities are treated when they are interviewed for a job, color perception of that employer; these consumer interactions impact how they view those businesses and services – and whether they are willing to spend their money with that organization.

Yet, marketing campaigns typically don’t include people with disabilities in consumer test studies, websites aren’t designed to attract this consumer group, and real people with disabilities are not portrayed using products and services unless in a medical situation. Even more, products and services are not designed to appeal to or meet the needs of this community. People with disabilities continue to be an afterthought, or more likely completely forgotten, as a consumer group.

Many people don’t even realize that accessible solutions for people with disabilities have changed the world. Yet, examples exist all around us of groundbreaking innovations and inventions first created to address the needs of the disability community that have crossed over to mainstream consumers.

  • The first typewriter was created by an Italian inventor to allow individuals who were blind a way to write.
  • The Tabulating Machine Company was founded by an individual living with a cognitive processing disability after creating punch cards as a way to transport census data. His company became known as IBM in 1924.
  • ARPANET, the precursor to e-mail, was invented by a hard of hearing man so he could communicate with his wife who was deaf using text on the computer.
  • The first consumer-grade voice recognition product was Dragon Dictate, the parent of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This product, still used today, allows people with learning disabilities and mobility disabilities to create written documents more effectively. Today voice recognition technology has become a way of living. It is reported that Apple invested more than $200 million to purchase Siri.

In December 2021, Amazon posted an article showcasing, How Alexa Helps Customers with Disabilities Every Day. The article shared stories of real people with disabilities using Alexa and various smart devices that interact with Alexa and how it has impacted their lives. What a great example of how a company can embrace this market space.

It is my hope that in the future more companies will take the time to consider how their products impact and can be used by all members of society, including those of us living with disabilities. Even more, I urge companies not to just have an article out there that talks about people with disabilities, but to incorporate that into their overall marketing plan so that people living with disabilities are shown using the product in their daily lives right along side people without disabilities.

What are some things a company committed to engaging the disability community can do?

Ensure you understand this market. When releasing a new product or service, include people with disabilities in target test groups and audiences. Whether paying for a survey, using artificial intelligence, or outreaching to certain markets, ensure those who are conducting studies know diversity expectations, including people with disabilities. Remember, the only way to understand the market is to hear feedback from people in this community – everybody else is just guessing.

Create people first personas. People with disabilities have lives – they are not just a disability. A college kid with cerebral palsy will have the potential to interact differently with a product or service than a dad with the same disability. Consider both the commonalities and the differences of lived experiences for people with disabilities. One of my employees, who is blind, is a husband and father of three. For years he was regularly asked by neighbors and people he met, “How do you do it?” His response, “Well, I get up every day and put on my pants, just like you.”

People without disabilities remain confused about how people with disabilities live their lives. While we may use technology, accommodations, or assistive devices to help us accomplish certain tasks, we live our lives largely like everyone else. We get up and get ready for our day. In the case of my employee, he took the bus to work – others might walk, drive, take a trolley, a train, or a subway. After work, he went home and shared dinner with his family. We have to understand disability as a culture if we are going to understand what motivates a person living with a disability to purchase a product or service. It is not only the disability that motivates us – all the other interests and needs a person has play a factor as well.

Make websites accessible. Multiple studies show that under 2% of the world’s top websites are accessible. According to an article published in Forbes on How Website Accessibility Affects Online Businesses, nearly 71% of people with disabilities will leave a website that is difficult to use, resulting in losses estimated in the billions. One thing that most companies don’t realize is that web content developers are not making websites accessible unless their customers demand it. Ensure that the developer understands the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and shares a commitment to digital accessibility when deciding on these services; include it in your request for proposals and statements of work. So many people make the mistake of thinking that developers are already doing this, but the vast majority are not; leaving companies open to lost customers and possible lawsuits.

Train employees about disability inclusion. My final tip for today is to ensure employees understand what inclusion means, know what accommodations or accessible features are available and are able to talk about them knowledgeably, and most importantly understand how to treat customers with disabilities with respect. There is no replacement for good customer service.

Just like in employment, people with disabilities are often not considered when business plans for sustainability and growth are made. And, just as employees with disabilities have the ability to become top performers in the company, consumers with disabilities have the ability to both provide keen insight that enhances the usability of products and services for all people and the potential to become a loyal customer base.

Are you sure your website is accessible? Contact us about conducting an audit.

Are you looking to enhance your disability inclusion training? Learn about iDisability.