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SpirE-Journal 2011 Q1

Marketing to Customers with Disabilities

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Marketing to Customers with Disabilities

The “special needs” community refers to individuals who require assistance for their disabilities. This may refer to disabilities that are physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional or developmental. Special needs consumers are a significant segment that is becoming more organized, vocal and involved in the market. What can companies do to address the special needs segment?

A significant market segment

More than 650 million people in the world, out of a global population of close to 7 billion, face some form of disability1. In India alone, conservative estimates points to 60 million experiencing some disabilities.

Moreover, based on an Asian Development Bank study, Asia will be the oldest region in the world by 2050. The number of elderly in Asia by then is expected to reach 992.7 million. And it is well-known that aging is associated with physical conditions affecting eyesight, hearing and movement.

So what does all this mean to companies? According to United Nations data, the proportion of the population with some form of disability is generally in the low single digits. However this still means that the segment is sizeable in absolute numbers. For example, the special needs segment is estimated to make up 5% of the population or around 70 million people, in mainland China alone.

Governments and societies are beginning to strive for better integration of people with disabilities. In Russia, where the disabled have historically suffered neglect and abuse, Prime Minister Vladmir Putin pledged to improve infrastructure for the estimated 13 million people living with disabilities in the country. “We are facing a challenge: to break the existing barriers facing the disabled, to do away with everything that restricts public access to transport, education, medical help and employment,” Putin said. This policy thrust tends to be echoed across most emerging economies, where public attention to the special needs community is increasing.

In the United States, which tracks the number of people with disabilities in employment, 35.3% of people with disabilities aged between 18 and 64 are working. Their ability to find work has no doubt been strengthened by the Americans withDisabilities Act. The corresponding figure for working special needs persons in emerging economies is probably lower but likely to be substantial nonetheless. Globally, an online portal and community for people with disabilities, ICan, estimates that disabled consumers control about $188 billion in disposable income.

Improved employment opportunities for the disabled means that the economic power of the special needs community will increase. This makes marketing to this significant segment more than a question of charity. It makes good business sense. And most companies have not grasped this yet. 

A key stumbling block – website accessibility

The internet could be a powerful leveling force in allowing special needs customers access to the market, creating demand for solutions catered to their needs. The internet is a platform which should make it easier for special needs customers to engage vendors. However the way most companies design and maintain their websites prevents this potential from being realized.

Few companies take the needs of customers with disabilities into account in the design of their websites. In Singapore for example, out of the top 100 companies by sales revenue, only 5 companies meet the World Wide Web Consortium‟s (W3C) recommendations, the international standard for web accessibility for special needs users. Web accessibility refers not only to “allowing the web to be used by people with disabilities, but also allowing web pages to be understood by people using browsers other than the usual ones – including voice browsers that read web pages aloud to people with sight impairments, Braille browsers that translate text into Braille, hand-held browsers with very little monitor space, teletext displays, and other unusual output devices.”

Making a website accessible involves fine-tuning various features – such as ensuring that appropriate text appears when sounds or images are turned off, variable and adequate font-sizes and colour contrast, and easy navigation of the site without the need to use a mouse10. More can be done by companies to meet these accessibility standards. Experts have commented on the ease of doing so, with such projects needing only three to six months with modest costs for a medium-to-large sized company.

Examples of countries which have taken steps to promote web accessibility include the following.

The South Korean Ministry of Public Administration is exerting public pressure on organisations to improve their web accessibility, in consultation with disability groups and standards experts11. The government of Korea has enacted the Digital Divide Act, which aims to promote access to IT environments for disabled and elderly people. Web accessibility is included as one of its major performance measures.
The Hong Kong government has been enhancing the accessibility of its websites and promoting the awareness of web accessibility to non-government organizations and the broader community since 2001.
The website of the Government Information Office, Republic of China (Taiwan) incorporates a Web Accessibility Service. The government has stated its aim to make the websites in Taiwan accessible to all users.

As the push for web accessibility gains traction, companies may eventually be mandated to comply with such standards.

The next frontier for accessibility is the mobile web. Mobile access to the internet has given customers the power to make purchase decisions from virtually anywhere in the world. Consumers‟ browsing patterns are changing with the increasing availability of smartphones. Global mobile phone use is at an all time high and there has been a surge of interest in developing websites designed specifically for access through mobile devices.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative, disabled people make up some 8 to 10 percent of the Web-surfing population. Mobile phones have enabled disabled people such as Deaf – Mute persons, the visually impaired and other disabled users to have access to e-mail messages and mobile Internet sites such as i-mode, EZweb, and Yahoo! Mobile. New technologies like type-to-talk products are being incorporated in mobile devices to augment communication systems for the disabled.

Corporate activity – slowly turning the corner?

To date, the involvement of companies with the special needs community has largely been limited to corporate sponsorships, donations and other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

However these efforts overlook the potential in marketing to the special needs community. Websites of special needs organisations have generally been overlooked as a marketing platform. Advertisements in the form of paid banners and icons are non-existent, as seen at websites such as the Malaysian Association of the Blind (http://www.mab.org.my/) and Feneis, Brazil‟s National Federation of Education and Integration of the Deaf (http://www.feneis.org.br/page/). This could be an opportunity for companies to build their brand with the special needs community, which is a niche, under-served segment.

Many organizations working for the special

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