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Selling to the Disabled Can Mean More than Ads


Carmen Jones, the founder of the Solutions Marketing Group here, is a dynamo in a wheelchair. Her mission, which she pursues at conventions and businesses across the country, is to help companies develop and carry out marketing strategies aimed at people with disabilities.

But despite the growing awareness of an undertapped market that has led more than 100 major American corporations to include people with disabilities in advertising campaigns, Mrs. Jones emphasizes that reaching the disabled requires more than simply including them in ads.

"Companies need to tell consumers with disabilities that they are valued consumers," she said, "that they are not an inconvenience, that they will have ease in accessing services, and where there is staff it will be skilled in addressing their special needs."

To address such issues, another consulting firm founded by people with disabilities, W. C. Duke Associates, trains employees in service industries in the etiquette of dealing with customers with disabilities.

Bill Duke, who founded the firm with his wife, Cheryl, and their son, Paul, has limited hearing; Paul, 32, has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since he was a teenager.

The Dukes' Opening Doors training program encourages employees to acknowledge the disability of customers and never to be afraid to ask how they can assist them. But they are trained to follow instructions exactly, and never to insist on providing assistance that the customer does not request. Employees are also shown how to interact with individuals with specific disabilities. For instance, they are taught how to describe the arrangement of items on a table for a person who has limited sight.

The founders of both consulting companies say their goal is to benefit their business clients as much as serving the cause of people with disabilities. Mrs. Jones says she became convinced that her firm would be a success when she discovered that no ad agency had a department for devising market strategies aimed at consumers with disabilities.

"I didn't want to be in a position two or three years down the road," she said, "where an existing company went into a business in which I knew that I could have been successful."

Mrs. Jones and the Dukes say that having a disability themselves gives them additional credibility as consultants. People with disabilities, they say, are the "experts" because they know what it is like to encounter barriers.

Still, determining whether companies will generate extra profits from going out of their way to reach people with disabilities is hard to quantify. Evidence of increased sales is only anecdotal.

McDonald's, one of the first companies to show deaf people in its commercials, contends that the ads have brought more people with a variety of disabilities into its restaurants. Similarly, Microsoft says it has sold more copies of Windows 98 by showing its accessibility features in television ads.

Citing census data, Mrs. Jones and the Dukes and argue that people with disabilities constitute a huge market of some 50 million Americans. But that figure comes from an especially broad definition of disability. A more realistic estimate may be just under 10 million, which is the number of people over 15 that the Census Bureau says are disabled enough that they need help with activities of daily living.

Moreover, even with the decade- old Americans With Disabilities Act, the unemployment rate for working-age people with disabilities remains chronically high and their incomes below average.

Nonetheless, the Solutions Marketing Group and W. C. Duke both say they are having little trouble attracting business from Fortune 500 companies. Their clients seem willing to pay consultants to draw up marketing strategies that may yield, at least in the short run, only a small financial return.

But there is a longer-run strategy at work. The incidence of disability cuts across all socioeconomic groups, and many people with disabilities are supported by their families and have sizable disposable incomes. Furthermore, with the aging of the population, more people who have had successful careers are acquiring disabilities later in life, when they have accumulated enough wealth to become heavy users of products and services designed for people with disabilities.

Mrs. Duke acknowledges that her consulting services are often sought out by companies that are under the threat of lawsuit for not complying with the disability law. But that threat only acts as a catalyst for many of her clients, she says. Many, convinced that being more inclusive is "doing the right thing," eventually go far beyond the legal requirements in adapting their services for use by people with disabilities.

While it has been accused of allowing harassment against a disabled employee to take place, Darden Restaurants provides menus in Braille at its Olive Garden and Red Lobster outlets. "We want to be able to serve any customer that comes in to our restaurants," said Linda Gonzalez, the company's manager of diversity and community affairs.

Others have embraced the "universal design" movement, which tries to make products usable by as many people as possible. Many features originally designed for users with disabilities end up helping nondisabled users, too.

Talking caller-ID units were initially designed for the blind but they can help anyone who is away from a telephone display. Similarly, closed captioning was designed for deaf television viewers. It can also be used by others when the sound of the television is an annoyance or where it would be drowned out by surrounding noises.

Mrs. Duke says that the family business was driven at first more by a sense of mission than any confidence that they would eventually make money. "Our relatives thought that we were crazy to do this," she said.

The Dukes, former public-school teachers, cashed out part of their pensions to start their venture, which began with a Virginia travel guide for people with disabilities. Today, the business, started in 1988, generates enough revenue for the Dukes to be selective in acquiring clients.

And their Opening Doors program, Mrs. Duke said, has now established itself as a known brand among consumers with disabilities, who seek out companies that have put their staff through the training.

 

Martin Krossel, The New York Times. November 20, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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