Marketing to Customers with Disabilities
The Potential Market
According to a 1992 U. S. Census study, there are 49 million* Americans with disabilities—that's nearly one out of every five Americans. Approximately half those over the age of 65 are disabled. The more the population ages, the more likely it will be that the number of persons with disabilities will increase.
The 49 million Americans with disabilities currently control $175 billion in discretionary income, despite the fact that only 52 percent of the working-age population, 15.3 million persons with disabilities, is employed. People with disabilities who are unemployed receive public and private direct income support totaling $109 billion. As more and more individuals with disabilities enter the workforce, their purchasing power will increase.
Added to these dollars is the purchasing potential of families of persons with disabilities. A recently released study by the U. S. Department of Education, based on 1990 data, reports that of the 69.6 million families in the United States, 20.3 million have at least one member with a disability.
Except for products geared specifically to disability-related needs, this segment of the consumer market has been largely ignored. Only in recent years have advertisers of general merchandise begun to recognize persons with disabilities as an important market segment.
* Editor's note: More recent Census data puts the number of people with disabilities in the U.S. at 53 million.
What You Need to Know
The first thing to remember when marketing to persons with disabilities is that they have the same range of preferences, perceptions, attitudes, habits, and needs that drive consumer behavior of persons without disabilities. Customers with disabilities have the same requirements as customers without disabilities quality products and services that meet their needs, reliability, and competitive market prices. Company outreach initiatives need to convey that people with disabilities are valued as customers. If their needs are satisfactorily met, customers with disabilities become loyal users and advertisements for the products and services. In addition to the discretionary purchasing potential that individuals with disabilities and their families may have, public and private third party payers, such as veteran service organizations, vocational rehabilitation programs, and the educational system, purchase services, equipment, and/or products for persons with disabilities. In 1993, direct service expenditures by the Veterans Administration, the U. S. Department of Defense, and the Rehabilitation Services Administration totaled $3 billion.
According to a General Accounting Office report, implementing the access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act has increased revenues in the hotel and hospitality industry by 12 percent. Other industries should take note and follow suit. Some advertisers cater heavily to the teen market, which controls only $67 billion in spending power less than half that of the disability market. A largely untapped consumer market exists, and business has a lucrative window of opportunity to tap into this market if it becomes customer responsive to persons with disabilities.
As with any market, it is important to segment and define the disability market and to utilize a variety of strategies that include both generic and niche marketing. In developing a marketing strategy, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that people with disabilities are the only ones who really know what they need or want. For much too long, assumptions have been made for them, rather than with them.
The following ideas should be considered in a marketing strategy for consumers with disabilities:
- Test your marketing approach with people with disabilities. Select people with a variety of disabilities to be part of your strategy
- Keep an open mind about what persons with disabilities can or cannot do, want or need, to drive your marketing strategy. Advances in technology, rehabilitation, and medicine, coupled with changes in societal attitudes, make many activities previously thought impossible for persons with disabilities possible.
Recognize the diversity of the disability market. Do not assume that one size fits all. Define why this market sector, and its development team. individual components, needs your services or products.
Include people with disabilities in your product development. Remember that products geared to meet the needs of persons with disabilities often can be marketed to the public at large (e.g., the electric garage opener).
Develop simple modifications to make existing services and products user-friendly to persons with disabilities.
Test market your products and services with the disability community to measure accessibility and/or usability by persons with different types of disabilities.
Develop promotional strategies that target persons with disabilities and their family members as desired customers.
Integrate persons with disabilities in your print and television advertising. Use persons with disabilities as models, actors in your commercials, or as spokespersons.
Include disability community newspapers, magazines, and newsletters in your print advertising budget.
Attend and exhibit at annual consumer disability conferences, as well as disability-related conferences for third party payers and professional organizations.
Become involved with the disability community by sponsoring and/or participating in a national or local event or project.
Office of Disability Employment Policy:
(202) 693-7880 (V), (202) 693-7881 (TTY)
Web site: http://www.dol.gov/odep/
State Governor's Committees:
For a list of state liaisons, see Office of Disability Employment Policy's Web site.
National Council on Independent Living:
(703) 525-3406 (V), E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disabilitiy Employment Policy, July 1997