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How to Improve Your Business for People With Disabilities

December 04, 2018

Creating a business that is accessible to people of all abilities improves business practices and creates a culture of empathy.

When we think about customers, we think of a person who can walk into a store without a wheelchair or someone who can access any website with ease.

The customer we don’t think about is the one who has a disability.

As a business owner, you should think about customers with disabilities when focusing on the customer experience. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million Americans have a disability. These are individuals who use services and products from businesses, so it’s important that businesses know how to improve their experiences.

To provide some insight on how businesses can improve the customer experience for persons with disabilities, I spoke with Jo Lynn Deal, founder of online meeting place and small business marketing firm myMarketingCafe. Her husband, Steve Deal, is disabled.

“Businesses can become more disability-friendly if they look at all the ways they interact with the customer and ensure that someone with a disability can have the same interaction as someone who is able-bodied,” Deal said.

Business owners need to look at their entire organization and think about how someone with any kind of disability will interact with different parts of their business, she adds.

Deal said improving those experiences for every customer comes down to empathy training for staff.

“[It could be beneficial to] even have an online training center where the manager has recordings of key issues with the disability population that a new employee would watch to orientate themselves on those issues,” she said.

Your business and all of its employees should learn to appeal to people of all backgrounds.

History of the Customer Experience for People With Disabilities

According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the 1800s, people widely believed that those with disabilities were unable to contribute to society except for entertainment purposes in circuses and exhibitions.

Society was also fearful of people with disabilities during the 1800s. Because of that fear, disabled people were forced into asylums and institutions to be separated from the rest of society.

It wasn’t until World War I that people with disabilities saw change. In exchange for their service to the nation, the U.S. government provided rehabilitation services. The advancements in technology in combination with government assistance in the 1930s helped lead to “the self-reliance and self-sufficiency of people with disabilities.”

Deal said that today, in the first half of the 21st century, people with disabilities have a much higher quality of life than they did in the first half of the 20th century. They can now find employment, travel, and shop from home.

“Online shopping has made a tremendous, positive impact for people with disabilities,” she said. “I have an uncle who was paralyzed in the late ‘60s. In that era, you were pretty much just written off. You’re not going to have a job, you’re not going to have a high-quality life. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was developed and helped change that. Many businesses, communities, and governments and cities are working to have a better experience with people who have disabilities.”

The American with Disabilities Act helps people who are disabled experience a better quality of life.

ADA National Network Facebook post

People with disabilities can now lead a better life than in the previous century, but businesses still need to be mindful of them.

How Can You Improve Experiences for People With Disabilities?

First, make things more accessible.

According to Natalie Gotko at Clique Studios, accessibility is about opportunity; it’s about creating the opportunity for everyone who interacts with you to participate in what you offer. Accessibility is designing products, services, or environments without barriers for those who experience a disability.

One example of accessibility is Accessible Daytona Beach.

Accessible Daytona Beach

The Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau contacted Deal’s husband, Steve, and asked him to visit many of the city’s visitor attractions – accessible accommodations, restaurants, entertainment and nightlife options, and transportation. The bureau then asked Steve to evaluate the level of accessibility at these businesses and provide feedback on how to improve.

The website features many of his recommendations

“The travel industry is so huge for disabled people,” Deal says. “Having resources online if you’re a destination or if you are trying to serve that market is wonderful.”

Deal advises that businesses should think about people with disabilities as a target audience and build strategies to reach this audience.

Build Relationships by Individualizing Experiences

One of the most effective ways to reach customers who are disabled is the same way you would reach customers who are able-bodied – you build positive relationships with them.

We live in a time when customers have options. The type of relationships you build with customers will determine if they trust you and if they will continue buying your products or services.

Building customer trust will also determine if customers become loyal.

Kathy Menis, former CMO at Signal, writes, “Being able to recognize a customer across time and channels and speaking to their needs and preferences is essential for relationship building.”

This includes the experience customers have before they even come into your store or know about your product, such as their interactions with any of your content.

An additional component of building relationships is making sure messaging is consistent across all customer touchpoints.

Aprimo says businesses need to get serious about their audiences by conducting thorough research on the customer journey: “Do this by using a blend of customer interviews, interviews with your sales organization, social media research, social listening analytics, and SEO analytics.”

Learn who your customers are and appeal to them.

Focus on the Customer

The only way for the customer’s experience to improve or be maintained is if the entire company is focused on the customer. And this type of mentality starts with leadership.

Customer service expert Shep Hyken writes a great example of how leadership determines a company’s focus.

When Hyken was paying for his food at a restaurant, his bill was $6.07. The employee who took Hyken’s money, a teenager named Matt, asked Hyken if he had 7 cents. Hyken said, “No,” so Matt said he would take care of it. Matt reached into his pocket and pulled out 7 cents.

When Hyken walked out the door, the manager said he teaches his employees to make all customers happy and satisfied – and he’s specific about how to make customers happy: The manager gives his employees nickels and pennies at the start of every shift.

If the manager simply taught employees how to do their jobs and nothing more, then it’s unlikely Matt would use spare nickels and pennies to help even out Hyken’s change. It’s unlikely he would have provided that more-than-satisfactory experience.

As an additional example, leadership can train staff to recognize when customers might need more help. If a customer is in a wheelchair, for example, and is experiencing difficulty getting down the aisle, then employees should know to assist that customer.

A business’s leaders should teach employees to focus on the customer.

Include All People in Your Business

Businesses need to think about people with disabilities as customers.

There is a potential to reach this audience through individualized experiences, making things accessible to everyone and shifting company focus to be all about the customer – all customers. 

About the Author

Headshot of Megan WenzlMegan Wenzl is a writer based in Chicago. She is dedicated to creating useful and engaging content to help businesses succeed. She has written about a range of different topics including customer experience, business productivity, and root beer floats.