Tapping into the disability market by Mary Fricker

Monday, October 24, 2005

ANTHONY TUSLER, a Penngrove consultant on disability and business issues and a longtime national advocate for the disabled, discusses opportunities for businesses in the disability market.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: Why do you argue that businesses should target the disability market? How will business benefit?

TUSLER: It's simple, there is profit to be made. That's because there is an unmet need. People with disabilities want to buy and use cell phones, MP3 players, washers and dryers, etc., just like anyone else.

If there are more usable cell phones, computers, copiers and Web sites, people with disabilities can participate more fully in jobs, society and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What is the size of the disability market? What are the most common disabilities?

TUSLER: Current statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau peg the number of people with disabilities at just under 20 percent of the U.S. population.

The disabilities of aging -- mobility, vision, hearing and cognition -- are categories that will grow as the baby boom generation ages. The Administration on Aging projects that by 2030 there will be more than 69 million people age 65 and older.

According to the Department of Labor, the disability market has $175 billion in discretionary spending. This is just about two times the spending power of teens, a highly sought after market.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: You've recently published "How to Create Disability Access to Technology," a book about how to improve disability access to technology products and services. What's a good example of a technology that isn't adapted for the disabled, and what needs to be done?

TUSLER: The example that is brought up again and again is cell phones. As they become smaller and smaller and have more and more features, they are less and less usable. The keys have gotten smaller. The displays have gotten smaller. It's confusing to figure out what the keys do.

For those of us needing reading glasses, it is often hard to know which buttons to push. For those with arthritis, tendinitis or big fingers, it's getting harder to push those buttons.

A phone with a reasonably large display, buttons the same size as my desk phone and a minimum of features would be useful for many people, not just those with disabilities.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: Can you name some companies that do a good job of adapting their products and services for the disabled?

TUSLER: After researching a number of Fortune 500 technology companies, I found a few that are really paying attention to the disability market.

The first company that comes to mind is Microsoft. They are paying a lot of attention and funding research on what people need to use their products. If you go to http://www.microsoft.com/enable/ and spend some time on it, you'll see many ways to address usability.

Black and Decker is another company that is paying attention. They used people with disabilities to help them design the Lids Off electric jar opener. It opens a surprising number of jars with hard-to-open lids. It allows people who had stopped cooking because of arthritis or other limitations to continue cooking even though they cannot grab, twist and open jars.

There are a number of initiatives at Cingular to make their products more usable. Because they have someone in the company who has deep professional and personal knowledge about disabilities, they are breaking new ground and developing a reputation for accessible phones and services.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What are "accessibility champions," and why do you recommend them?

TUSLER: I found that successful companies had one person who is the "evangelist" for accessibility. I have dubbed those people accessibility champions. Although none of them has that title, it is a useful term to define their role in their companies. The accessibility champion makes sure that the company consistently meets the needs of its customers with disabilities. The accessibility champions help get the word out about how their companies are meeting the needs of people with disabilities.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What is universal design, and why do you support it?

TUSLER: Universal design is a concept that was developed to describe good architectural design that works for everyone. It was taken up by other designers, including the owner of OXO kitchen products. He noticed that his wife, who has arthritis, had a hard time using basic kitchen tools. His company now makes spoons, vegetable peelers, lettuce spinners, etc. that his wife can use. OXO found that the designs were more usable by everyone and are best sellers.

An example that has become second nature to us is ramps. All new buildings now have ramps so that people in wheelchairs can get in. But the ramps are useful for everyone, particularly those with wheels, like delivery carts, baby carriages and roll-on suitcases.

According to the Center for Universal Design, "Good universal design simplifies life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost."

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What resources are available to help businesses learn how to adapt their products and services for the disabled?

TUSLER: A good starting point is the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin. Their Web site has rich and detailed information about making technology accessible and general principles of universal design, http://trace.wisc.edu/.

For marketing information, the National Organization on Disability has a section of their Web site on resources for marketing to people with disabilities. Go to http://www.nod.org and click on "Marketing to People with Disabilities" in the left navigational bar.

My book published by the World Institute on Disability, "How to Create Disability Access to Technology," explains the steps to making companies' products and services accessible. More information is available at http://www.AboutDisability.com.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What are some examples of easy steps businesses can take to accommodate, reach and serve disabled customers?

TUSLER: Businesses need to develop a plan. Not only does it help satisfy one of the requirements of the (Americans With Disabilities Act), a plan helps to do the most important things first. Planning compels business owners and employees to think about priorities and recognize the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead.

A good start is to ask customers with disabilities what needs to be done. Find out if your front door -- whether it is a Web site or a building -- is easy to get in. If you were pushing a baby carriage, using a wheelchair or carrying packages, can you open the front door? Is it too heavy? Is your staff helpful, whether or not a customer has a disability?

A good resource for businesses is the Pacific ADA & IT Center. Start at their Web site http://www.pacdbtac.org/national/index.htm or call for technical assistance: (800) 949-4232.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: What are the most interesting or surprising things you learned in researching your book?

TUSLER: As I researched the book, I talked to accessibility champions across the country. On a couple of occasions, I found an accessibility champion who had just recently caught fire about the need for accessibility. One in particular was humbled by the size of the disability market and the implications for all of his customers. He helped me to better understand the importance and excitement of serving a new market.

I was also surprised at how few companies are really planning for the needs of the aging baby boomers. Not only will there be many baby boomers who acquire disabilities but they also expect to remain active and involved. This attitude will impact in unexpected ways everything from transportation to housing to employment.

PRESS DEMOCRAT: Do you have some tips for businesses on how they can profitably market to people with disabilities?

TUSLER: First and foremost, inform your customers and potential customers with disabilities about your accessibility efforts. A researcher told me, "Average consumers tell two people about products they're satisfied with and five people about products they're dissatisfied with. For consumers with disabilities ... the corresponding numbers are four and nine."

Also let all your employees know about the accessibility efforts within your company, not just those who deal with the public. You never know where you will find a good idea or an opportunity.

Examine your products and services. Do they work for the broadest group of people?

Most successful companies seek advice when they start to address the disability market. All companies already employ people with disabilities, whether they know it or not. Use their expertise. Call your local independent living center to get their advice. In Sonoma County and on the North Coast, it's Community Resources for Independence, 528-2745.

Of course, I'm willing to provide referrals and resources to companies who want to better serve the disability market.

This interview was conducted by e-mail by Staff Writer Mary Fricker, who can be reached at 521-5241 or mfricker@pressdemocrat.com.