Mining the disability market


In the second of two articles, New York based disabled businessman and former Wall Street trader, Rich Donovan, looks at the opportunity that the disability market holds, how to get it moving and the benefits to all concerned.

Getting gold out of the ground seems simple enough - dig a hole, and poof, there it is.


The reality of gold mining, however, is that there are steps that must be taken which require more than a shovel and a dream. The good thing about taking those steps is that, at the end of the day, you have the increased potential to strike it rich by finding ... well, gold.


New and different action in disability holds the same promise - a significant economic benefit with relatively small outlays and adjustments. These new and different actions must come from three sources: government, business, and disabled people themselves. Let's look at all three.


Governments must help unlock the economic potential in disabled people by enacting policy that encourages a generation of self-sustaining disabled consumers. What governments can make a difference with right now, is prepare them for earning higher levels of income through education.

So-called Special Education is not focused on prepping disabled people to compete for jobs. This is simply because, at its inception, few thought a career for a disabled person was a viable goal. Things have changed, and our education system needs to play catch-up and adjust its expectations.


Disabled kids today are not taught to dream about a career. It troubles me every time I meet a bright fifteen year old disabled kid who has never been asked the simple question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"


Progress has been made with a social focus. Now governments need a shift to an economic focus by equipping disabled students with the tools and passion to build their careers.


The path for business is simple - do what you are best at. There is no need to become experts in disability. Attack this market as you would any other: find out the desires of disabled consumers as they relate to your profitable enterprise, adjust your product and messaging to attract their business then execute this in line with your company's process and culture.

Mistakes are made when companies try to 'disablise' their business or do just enough to comply with regulations. Disabled people don't want 'special' products ... but they are hungry to be included in the mainstream consumer experience.


Doing this right is OXO Good Grips, a US kitchen tool company. OXO's products don't scream 'designed for disabled', yet they were inspired by a woman with arthritis who loves to cook. Their branding makes them attractive to twentysomethings who just think they are cool.


Message to CEOs ... if disability is not part of your annual strategic business plan you and your shareholders are missing a big opportunity.


Disabled people
Disabled people must become 'inspired consumers' and 'motivated investors'. The last thirty years of lobbying governments and the courts, has come and gone.


We must turn our attention to informing companies on how to improve our consumer experience. Rather than marching on Parliament, shift your focus to products and services that you enjoy that could be better. Start telling companies how their offerings could be best tailored to you.

Here is some 'inside insight': companies actually want to hear from you. They make their 'stuff' better by collecting feedback from their customers. Great companies love feedback, and the ones that don't, you can feel free to ignore.


Communication from consumers to companies happens in two primary ways. First, reward companies that earn your business by buying their products aggressively, and tell them why you did so. Punish companies that 'do disability' poorly, or who merely comply with the law, by not buying their products, and tell them why you did so.


As part of this process, individuals and groups must start flowing information about product/service improvements to companies. This can be as simple as calling the number on the back of the package, and can be as sophisticated as organized groups publically reviewing products that work or miss the mark. It is important that this happens in large numbers, say in the low thousands.


To paraphrase what I've been told by more than 10 corporate executives - 'disabled customers are too quiet; we would do more if it was demanded'. They need to hear from you.


The second and more complex way to entice companies to better serve the disabled customer is through ownership. By owning shares in companies, disabled people can exert power to ensure they are represented in the boardroom.


There is a long history of how to do this - women and the environmental movement have done it well through funds like Calvert Investments.


Part of Calvert's role is to work with the boards of the companies they invest in and, alongside maximising value for shareholders, they do business in a way that addresses their investors' social and green agenda.


Large investors like pension funds and endowments can play a role in encouraging and investing in funds like Calvert to support progressive goals.


Similarly, disabled people and their 'champions' must start to pressure large investors to pay attention to the emerging market of disability.

The toughest part of successfully mining for gold is bringing all of the right pieces together prior to digging a hole. All involved in disability acknowledge that the economic potential in this segment is about the size of China, yet attempts at unlocking the potential have yielded limited results.


We know that there is 'gold in them hills', how we get it out is more important than its mere existence. What is missing today is new and different actions, producing new and different results.


Rich Donovan is Founder and Chief Investment Officer at WingSail Capital, a New York based investment management firm that offers institutional equity strategies. Rich happens to have cerebral palsy and uses a disability lens to find investments that beat the market.


Article published on BB - Ouch! by Rich Donovan