The Business Model of Disability


by Jonny Wilkinson

We all know the baby boomers are no longer babies. In fact, they’re getting so long in the tooth they’re practically tripping over themselves.

And it seems they’re tripping over more than their teeth; our mature citizens are at risk of tripping over all kinds of things, because 45% of people over the age of 65 have confessed to an impairment of one sort or another, mostly pertaining to mobility issues.

It is this demographic that has caused us (disabled people with a thirst for equality and a pang to be valued) to see a fantastic opportunity to uphold the ‘business model of disability’. If there was ever a time to show that disabled people actually represent a huge market and encourage business to see us as a potential gold mine, it is now. Make your goods and services disability-friendly and you will be fiscally rewarded by the loyalty of over 20% of the population.

But as they say, business is business. Those of you who have ever indulged in commercial trading will know that business is a cut-throat world and that sometimes, passion and enthusiasm aren’t enough. You can’t equate a potential market with guaranteed business simply by making it possible for people to physically enter a building, or having a ‘considerate’ ethic. This alone does not create a market.

If this was the case then one could simply set up a Left-Handed Store in an area where no other Left-Handed Store existed and take 10% of the customer base. Anyone with a scrap of business acumen can see this won’t work, and would not go anywhere near it without a solid marketing strategy that effectively targets left-handed people.

So how does one use the “business model of disability” to drive social change? In my opinion, you need to go back to the basics.

It really is as simple as knowing your customer. Or, as the case may be, customers.

The first customer we need to acknowledge is the business itself. What does the business want? Simply put, businesses want more people coming through their doors, spending as much money as possible.

Secondly and perhaps most crucially is the disabled customer, who you hope will respond to businesses that have modified their behaviour.

The disability market is an interesting kettle of fish. For businesses to attract disabled customers, they must target them directly. This means understanding the ‘disability market’, respecting the various communities of disabled people, and recognising their values which, in turn, make them want to spend money. This has been done well in certain pockets of industries, however it is primarily mature or elderly people who have been targeted, rather than the disabled population en masse. A great example of the business model of disability working in financial harmony with a targeted population is the cruise ship industry. Cruise ships effectively target older people in what is a billion dollar industry. They do this effectively by having finite environments i.e. ships that are totally accessible, have medical professionals on board and provide excellent customer service. At Tiaho Trust, we have a commercial arm that is trading as Dove’s Tail Tourism. We are working with the Copthorne Waitangi to prove that we can increase their occupancy levels. When advertising in our market we were mindful to provide information about accessible features without de-glamourising the hotel with images riddled with negative stigmas.

Let’s be honest, the process of effectively targeting and marketing products and services to disabled people is one that needs far more discussion, analysis and experimentation in order to truly connect and resonate with businesses.

So think about it – if you were going to put the business model of disability into action, how would you effectively target the ‘disability market’ or a sub-group of the disability market?

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