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Businesses Target Customers with Disabilities

People with disabilities have unique needs that often inspire innovation, according to Neil Romano, former assistant secretary of labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and current president of CORA, an organization that trains people with disabilities for telework positions. During the US Business Leadership Network 2009 Annual Conference held in National Harbor, Md., he suggested businesses think of customers with disabilities as “extreme users”—people who use existing products in an extreme way or people who need extreme products.

One way to meet extreme users’ needs is to design products and places to be usable by everyone without further adaptation—a concept known as universal design.

For example, AT&T wanted to make its products more appealing and usable, according to Susan Mazrui, AT&T’s director of public policy, who participated in a panel discussion Sept. 17, 2009, in conjunction with the conference. The aptly named “BreEZe” phone has a well-lit screen, number keys that illuminate and a default ring tone of vibrate/ring, and it is hearing-aid compatible, thus making it “EZ” to use by older consumers and people with various disabilities.

She said it is “absolutely critical” to get input from the disability community at all stages of the product development and marketing cycle. “We can think we are doing the right thing, but we can make some really silly mistakes,” she added.

Although products might be designed to meet the needs of those with disabilities, Mazrui suggested that organizations talk less about accessibility and more about usability.

“The [Baby] Boomer market doesn’t look at your product and say, ‘It isn’t accessible to me.’ They say, ‘It’s a crappy product,’ ” she noted. “If you embrace accessible design, you can come up with a product that is better for everyone.”

At the same time, it’s important to review the shopping experience to ensure that there are no barriers that would prevent customers with disabilities from purchasing a company’s products.

Nordstrom stores have special lighting and low displays to make it easy for customers to see and touch products, according to Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, corporate diversity affairs specialist for Nordstrom, who joined Mazrui for the session on “Strategic Marketing with Disability Community Marketing Segments.”

But first they need to get people into their store.

Fukui-Sketchley said Nordstrom tries to reflect all potential customers in its ads by requiring that one-third of models used in advertising be people with disabilities or people of color. But the company doesn’t use target marketing to reach members of specific communities or groups. “Everything is mainstream,” she said.

Mainstream marketing makes added sense for the disability community because it is made up of a number of smaller communities—some based on identity, some based on functional limitation and some that don’t identify, according to Tari Hartman Squire, CEO of disability marketing firm EIN SOF Communications Inc., who facilitated the session. She recommends an advisory committee made up of people with disabilities to help create key messages using disability-savvy language.

McDonald’s has reaped unexpected benefits from its marketing efforts, according to Kevin Bradley, the company’s director of inclusion and diversity, who participated in the panel discussion. “When we featured our first parathlete on one of our bags, consumers started calling our 800 number to say, ‘That was so cool, thank you so much!’ ” he said. “Every person with a disability has a friend, a loved one, a counselor, so if they are thinking positively about your company because of an ad, that’s probably affecting five or 10 other folks.”

McDonald’s provides training as well as Braille and picture menus to make sure their stores are as prepared as possible to meet customer needs.

“This is not about marketing as a charitable cause; this is about making more money,” Bradley said. “The disability dollar should be as important to all of us as any other dollar.”

Such a perspective can go a long way toward increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, he added: “If we see people with disabilities as customers, then we will see them as potential employees.”

Attitudinal Changes

“True accessibility is a philosophy and a behavior that involves every part of our business,” said Roy Flora, group president of the Wyndham Hotel Group, representing Microtel Inns and Suites. This means that employees must be trained to be courteous, comfortable and knowledgeable working with travelers with disabilities, he said during a Sept. 17, 2009, keynote presentation. “You can’t just rely on a manual or a checklist; it has to be reinforced with training.” For example, employees are trained to watch for medic alert bracelets and to ask guests if they have special needs.

“From the hoteliers’ standpoint, it’s not just about compliance with the law, it’s about building our business,” Flora said, and that means tapping into the millions of travelers with disabilities who have billions of dollars of discretionary income.

Microtel’s web site contains detailed information for travelers with disabilities, describing room layouts and accessibility features, including items such as a second, lower peephole on the door and curtain rods and door handles that can be operated with a closed fist.

Flora explained that the company caters to little people and others of short stature by providing resources such as a “short stature accessibility kit,” complete with step stool, reach grabber and closet rod adapter.

From the beginning, Microtel positioned itself to be the budget hotel of choice for people with disabilities, according to Flora, and it is one of just three lodging providers listed on the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality’s web site.

The company’s efforts are paying off in revenue generated from accessible room bookings and awards. It has been rated highest in guest satisfaction among budget hotel chains eight years in a row by J.D. Power and Associates.

Accessibility as Strategy

Making sure its theme parks are accessible fully to individuals with a wide range of abilities and disabilities is core to Disney’s original mission, according to Greg Hale, vice president and chief safety officer, worldwide safety and accessibility, for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.Walt Disney’s original vision was to create a place for parents and kids to have fun together, he said during a Sept. 18, 2009, plenary session. “The goal is for everyone to be able to experience the magic,” he said.

This means that Disney golf courses have accessible golf carts, its Blizzard Beach Water Park has a gondola to take guests to the top of the Mount Gushmore water slide, and wheelchair users can join their family members on the beach.

But guests with disabilities aren’t segregated from other guests, Hale noted. “We try to mainstream as much as possible through our queues so everyone can go as a family,” he said. “We want everyone to participate as equals.”

This means that many rides are designed so wheelchair users can wheel themselves on board, while other rides enable guests to transfer from a chair or scooter to the ride. However, to make sure that they are comfortable doing so, Disney provides a behind the scenes “practice station” so guests can try transferring to the type of seat used on a particular ride before trying the real thing.

To make sure guests with hearing impairments can enjoy its parks fully, Disney provides scheduled performances with theatrically trained sign language interpreters as well as assistive listening and video captioning services. Guests with visual impairments have access to Braille maps and guidebooks as well as recorded audio descriptions of rides and services. Services are delivered through small handheld devices.

“We use our own cast members,” such as those who participate in the company’s employee resource group focused on disabilities, “to help us develop some of these innovative services,” Hale said.

Cast members are expected to provide respectful, knowledgeable and individual attention to each guest so that all can enjoy an identical experience, he added. That’s what guests are most likely to praise—the people, not the technology.

“We’ve received a lot of awards, but that’s not why we did it,” Hale said. “We don’t want anyone in the family to be left out.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

How to Attract the Largest Minority Market, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Sept. 1, 2007


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