Let’s Build a Disability Marketplace

By , November 9, 2011

“There is no disability marketplace.” That’s the message I hear all the time from businesses. They don’t believe that there is a disability marketplace.  I tell them they’re wrong, that the disability marketplace is made up of 50 million-plus consumers with more than $200 billion in annual discretionary spending power.  But businesses aren’t buying that.  Or, actually, they think we’re not buying.  Are they right?  I mean, really, where is the disability marketplace?

I’d say we are just about where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community was 20 years ago.  At that time, despite some civil rights victories, the LGBT community was fragmented, disconnected and struggling to step out of the margins to get a foothold into society.

Then, starting in the 1990s, when lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders began to connect as “LGBT,” things started to change.  What did they have in common?  It wasn’t sexuality or shared sexual preferences; there was, and still is, controversy around acceptance of the differences.  But what they shared was a desire to integrate into all parts of the community without discrimination.  So, they joined together with their allies, friends and families and built a powerful political force and a consumer marketplace that has gained undeniable momentum and has become a force for irreversible change.  And businesses are paying attention.

So, where is the disability marketplace?  Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even with recent broadening of disability definitions, businesses still see disability through a very narrow lens and pay little attention to the facts and figures we throw around about our spending power.

All people with all types of disabilities have yet to come together as a unified, powerful voice.  What does this mean for community integration?  It means that businesses continue to ignore the disability marketplace, deeming it non-existent or unimportant to their bottom lines.  Most businesses believe they are disability-aware if they are physically accessible, yet staff members don’t know how to interact naturally and comfortably with people who have all kinds of disabilities or what to do about a service animal.  The disability community either accepts whatever it gets in the way of service or files a lawsuit.  That’s a loss for the community and for the business.

What’s the solution? 

It will take a serious coming together of the physical, developmental and mental health disability member groups to take disability awareness to the next level with businesses. We must use the power of our wallets to communicate with businesses as consumers.  Like it or not, that is the best shot the disability community has to achieve full community integration – maybe the only shot.  State funds, wasted for years on institutionalization, are now mostly depleted – and those in power will hang onto what little is left. So forget about looking to the states for progressive change and integration.

And what about employment?  Many don’t want to face it, but the reality is that a nine percent unemployment rate makes traditional efforts to “get jobs for people with disabilities” irrelevant and, quite frankly, unrealistic.

In my opinion, the best way – and the easiest way – to get the attention of businesses for employment or integration is through our wallets.  The diversity director of one of the largest fast-food corporations in America told me, and I quote: “What would be a compelling reason to hire people with disabilities?  It should be that people with disabilities are viable consumers with disposable income and choices.  If we can convince businesses of that, and show the direct and ancillary markets associated with people with disabilities, they will market to that community and go after them as consumers.  A by-product of that is usually the businesses figuring out that they need to reflect their consumers…guess what happens?  Employment of people with disabilities!”

That’s why I started jjslist.com, a website where anyone can review, share and find information about the disability-aware service of any business, of any size, anywhere, anytime.  When businesses know that people will patronize their competitor because that competitor makes disability awareness part of its day-to-day operations, those businesses will start paying attention to attracting the disability customer and, over time, open their eyes to employing that same customer base.

Think about the last time you were in a business.  Could you have gotten in the door if you used a mobility device?  Did the staff talk directly to the person with the disability?  Did you get extra time or assistance if you needed it?  Did they welcome a service animal?  Do they have employees with disabilities?  Review them!

These are the kinds of things you can talk about on jjslist.com.  We notify businesses of every review posted.  We’re grassroots, and we look to you to start building the conversation about the disability awareness of businesses where you live.  With reviews now posted from 23 states and thousands of followers on Twitter, the buzz is growing.  But it’s your voice that must be heard.   It’s fast, easy and free to post a review.

So, the next time you visit a business, check it out.  Is it disability-aware? Let others know, and let the business know by posting your review.  It doesn’t get better for one if it doesn’t get better for everybody.

So, is there is a disability marketplace? That’s up to you.

Author: JJ Hanley

JJ Hanley is founder and executive director of JJ's List, a Chicago-based organization whose mission is to bring consumers with disabilities together with businesses for the benefit of both. With a cross-disability, cross-generational team, she runs the disability consumer review website JJsList.com, teaches Internet skills for employability to people with disabilities and trains businesses in disability-aware service skills.

She produced the multiple award-winning, national PBS documentary Refrigerator Mothers, about systematic mother-blame in treating autism and is a proud parent of two sons, one of whom is emergent from autism spectrum disorder and has learning disabilities.

She writes, produces and speaks on the subject of disability citizenship. Formerly, JJ was a vice president at Bankers Trust Company in New York and London. She is a cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College.