Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Disabilities And Purchasing Power

Today I tweeted that people with disabilities are the 3rd largest market in the United States according to the US Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). I admit, the news did not surprise me much. People with disabilities realise they have buying power, unfortunately, most businesses don’t seem to understand that. I remember bumper stickers saying "I’m disabled, I vote, and I spend".

In the ODEP’s newsletter Business Sense of May 2009, the A positive strategy for expaning market share article goes on to state that people with disabilities, their families, friends and loved ones spend up to US$1 trillion each year. That’s a considerable amount.

One of the people following me said that this was "happy fluffy numbers", because of the addition of "families, friends, etc". He appeared dismissive (though to be fair, I quite possibly misread him, hard to judge tone/intent in 140 characters).

So, ok, it’s not a trillion dollars spend directly by people with disabilities. But it’s not just numbers thrown in to make it appear bigger. No, I don’t have hard facts to put behind my statement, but anecdotal evidence tells the story well. As Joyce Bender, President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services is quoted saying in the article:

“It does have an impact, because, when you’re a person with a significant disability, there’s a brother, there’s a sister, there’s a mother, there’s a father, or a wife or a husband. There’s a whole group, and they very well know how companies treat that person in their family.”

Word of mouth is powerful. If a particular place isn’t accessible, we tell our friends, we tell our families. And when a place *is* disability friendly, we also tell the people around us. And in the vast majority of cases, if there’s a choice between selecting a disability friendly business over one that puts barriers up, our family, our friends, they tend to pick the one where we have good service and experience.

Consider the mother of a child with a mobility impairment. The mother doesn’t have a disability. But if the store is not accessible, she can’t go in. She’ll go spend her money where she can go in with her son.

And when I go to a restaurant, I don’t go by myself. I go with my partner, my family, my friends. The restaurant with steps at the entrance won’t get our business. They don’t even get the chance to impress us with the quality of food or service! Talk about a quick way to lose business!

Back in the 1990’s one of the hotel associations in the US had a study (sorry, can’t find reference anymore) that showed that after renovating their rooms to make them accessible, the average business increase was 14%. Yes, once they were accessible, they got 14% more business. That is not insignificant increase in business.

Considering the problems businesses face today, it just boggles the mind that they wouldn’t try and tap into that market. Often, a business doesn’t even have to spend much money to make their premises accessible.

So, yeah, those numbers were compiled for the United States. I’m in New Zealand, it’s got to be different, right? Well, obviously we don’t have 54 million people with disabilities. Still, census data consistently shows approximately 20% of the population of New Zealand as having a significant disability. That is 1 New Zealander in 5 has a disability. It’s not all about mobility impairments. It might be about vision (it’s amazing the number of places that still have a no dog policy, even if it’s a guide dog). Or it might be about hearing (it is also amazing the number of places that dismiss their deaf customers). And people with disabilities in New Zealand have parents, sibblings, partners, friends, colleagues.

And the interesting is that 1 in 5, that 20% seems to be an average in many countries. Canada, the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Australia, to name a few, hover around a similar ratio of people with disabilities. So even international business should pay attention!

In any case, doesn’t it make more business sense to make sure your place of commerce can be used by every possible customer that has money to spend and could be interested in your product or service?