DISABLED CUSTOMERS

Customers with some type of disability comprise a huge market of more than 54 million people in the United States alone. This group, which amounts to approximately 20 percent of the total population of the country, boasts approximately $700 billion in annual income (and $175 billion in disposable income), according to the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Industry analysts expect that this buying power will exceed the $1 trillion mark early in the new century. This compelling evidence of the purchasing power of this market segment makes it clear that businesses need to conduct operations in ways that will attract disabled customers to their goods and services.

Certainly, attention to this market has improved in recent years. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was perhaps the single biggest factor in jarring U.S. businesses into a recognition that they were overlooking a huge segment of the American population (and one that is expected to continue to grow as the "baby boomer" generation enters retirement age). Certainly, some businesses garnered healthy profits by concentrating their efforts on meeting the needs of disabled people in the "pre-ADA" business world. But it was not until the early 1990s, when the ADA became law, that many other companies suddenly realized that a considerable number of their goods and services—while acceptably designed and packaged for their primary non-disabled customers—were unfriendly to disabled customers, and that their advertising campaigns showed little recognition of the market. Thus the requirements contained in the ADA forced businesses to revisit the usefulness of their products and services to disabled customers at the same time that publicity about the law stirred a dawning realization that disabled people amounted to a largely untapped target market of significant size. Since that time, however, businesses of varying sizes have endeavored to reach disabled customers with a combination of improved advertising and service and innovative product design and packaging.

The portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act that most directly relates to customer service issues for disabled people is Title III (other sections cover issues such as ensuring that disabled people are not discriminated against in hiring, promotions, and other internal operational areas). Title III requires that private businesses that are open to the public—including retail establishments, restaurants, and hotels and motels—give individuals with disabilities the same access to their goods and services that nondisabled customers enjoy. This section of the ADA also required that all future construction of commercial facilities, including office buildings, factories, and warehouses, as well as places of public accommodation, be constructed so that the building is accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The regulations contained in the ADA, coupled with reexaminations of product designs, packaging, and marketing have spurred a revolution in how some goods are made and marketed. For example, many manufacturers of milk, juices, and other liquids have turned to new design alternatives so that receptacles can be more easily opened and closed (manufacturers belatedly realized that some designs, such as cartons and screwtop covers, served to turn away large numbers of customers with arthritis and other maladies that affected their grip and strength). "The physically elite can easily overcome design flaws simply by working a bit harder at the task," said one design researcher in an interview with Appliance Manufacturer. But for disabled people, minor design shortcomings can prove problematic. Manufacturers who do not take adequate steps to ensure that their products can be used by disabled people, then, are likely to alienate a big part of the total market that will continue to grow in the coming years. "As the demographic profile of the American marketplace changes, a growing segment of consumers will find it difficult to compensate for the less-than-optimal design in many products," wrote Norman C. Remich Jr. in Appliance Manufacturer.

Finally, business observers note that the growing numbers of disabled people in the general population, combined with the access-related mandates contained in the ADA, have made disabled customers a much more visible presence in stores and business offices. Small business owners and managers should thus make certain that they have adequate employee training and insurance safeguards in place for interactions with this customer group. Writing in Discount Store News, Thomas Georgouses made an observation about convenience store owners that is also true of many business owners in a wide range of industry occupations: "Most discount store owners are well aware of the importance of job training for their employees, and some may even recognize the importance of complying with statutes, regulations, and ordinances as they apply to physical access to premises. However, only a few truly appreciate the importance of good employee training when it comes to conducting relations with disabled customers, especially in today's litigious climate."

Business owners are thus encouraged to require training and education to employees on disability issues and consult with an attorney to make sure that their insurance policies provide adequate protection. Finally, business advisors and advocates for the disabled agree that disabled customers simply want to be treated fairly; small business owners that are able to accomplish that will thus position themselves to garner a healthy share of this growing market.

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