Color & Control:

Understanding the Disability Market


Understanding the Disability Market
The Irrefutable Business Case

By Brian Dawson and Rich Donovan

Man in wheelchair holding laptop


Think about this for a second.
Our culture supports the hiring of people with disabilities. The law mandates it. Yet unemployment for people with disabilities is still an issue, not just in Canada but around the world. Why?

The answer is quite simple: because nobody expects a return. Everywhere you look, the assumption in businesses is that it costs more to hire people with disabilities than it’s worth. It’s time to change that thinking.

Here are four key points that drive the business case for addressing the needs, and capabilities, of those with disabilities:

1. People with disabilities represent an emerging market the size of China.

Let’s start by defining “people with disabilities” (PWD) as how the individual sees himself or herself (self-identification). Then think about the fact that people with visible disabilities—such as those in wheelchairs or walking with a guide dog—make up only 29 per cent of people with disabilities. That means the remaining 71 per cent have disabilities that are hidden from us: sensory or cognitive disabilities. Taken together, this group is huge.

In the US, PWDs control about $544 billion in disposable income—three times the size of the disposable income for the entire US Hispanic community. Yet PWDs are pretty much ignored by mainstream businesses. In Canada, PWDs have about $47 billion in disposable income. In terms of population, the 6.2 million PWDs in Canada represent the size of the GTA—the opposite of a niche market.

If you include friends and families of people with disabilities—all those people who have an innate understanding of disability and its impact on the people they love—you’re looking at a huge market. In the US, this group makes up one-third of the general population.

In Canada, PWDs and their friends and families add up to twelve million people, more than a third of our population, with total disposable income in excess of $311 billion. These are people who pick cars and restaurants based on the needs of their loved ones with disabilities. They are loud and influential, too. Think about it: Don’t you tell everyone around you which stores “get” disability, and which restaurants gave you a horrible experience? Yet big businesses in Canada largely ignore this market. And here is the key point they are missing: The innovations and insights derived from addressing the demands of PWDs are applicable to everyone. Product development and customer-centred messaging learned from PWDs can drive a company’s return on investment through enhanced ease of use and stronger brand connection. These crossover applications from the disability market to the broader market are what drives disability-related capital spending.


PWDs, together with their friends and families, represent a large group of consumers whose identity goes beyond their medical condition.

2. There are a host of unmet consumer needs for this market that are waiting to be addressed.

We’re not just talking about functional needs. Consumers have emotional needs too, and that’s what drives purchasing decisions. So when consumers feel strongly about something, like disability for instance, then they identify strongly with brands that meet those emotional needs.

As disability goes mainstream, so do the products, services and brands that speak to it. If mainstream brands want to attract consumers with disabilities and their friends and families, they must appeal to core human behaviours that trigger purchasing. They can’t position disability as a need, they have to position it as a powerful, positive identity. Because that, more than ever before, is how people with disability see themselves.


Most corporate activity in disability today is focused on hiring, not value creation. Most firms ignore their biggest value driver— serving the PWD as the customer.

Centro tavola

3. Organizations are not

What if you suddenly discovered that 20 per cent of your workforce spoke Chinese but didn’t think it relevant to bring up at work? (In fact, they were desperately trying to hide it.) Imagine trying to tackle the Chinese market without realizing that rather important fact.

Now think about tackling the disability market, a global market the size of China, and not realizing that 20 per cent of your workforce has some type of disability. And many of them keep this fact hidden, often for good reason.

Tapping into the skills and insights of that 20 per cent can change the way business is done. Not just so businesses can address this disability market I’ve been telling you about, but so they can be better at everything they do.

PWDs and their friends and families share a marketable talent and knowledge base that those without disabilities simply have not had the need to develop. Whether it’s figuring out how to open a bottle of water with limited dexterity, or a different way to process information written on a page, or how to raise a child with a disability, these people are some of the most talented and creative problem solvers in our society today. Customers with disabilities can be thought of as “Extreme Users,” the ones who push the limits of a product or service. Companies that ignore what they have to teach should get ready to be passed by companies that are listening to them.


34% of the largest Canadian public companies indicate an interest in this market, and 10% of them back up that interest with material efforts that benefit shareholders.


4. Government must expect a return, and pull the right levers to encourage the private sector to act.

There are three themes that should drive government policy on disability: education, empowerment and alignment.

Education needs to be about integrating disability into the mainstream. So-called “special” education is not so special. Parallel systems lead to separate lives.

Government has a right to demand mainstream outcomes from the effort it makes to drive education around disability. We need to focus on career outcomes for PWDs, right from Grade one. We need to leverage what we learn from restructuring education around disability, to benefit all students.

Policies built around “entitlements” for PWDs are actually disabling. They promote a “maintain at zero” mindset, where the best we can hope for is that these individuals don’t become worse off. But if we restructure our efforts to focus on arming individuals with marketable skills—empowering them instead of just protecting them—we get a dual win: reduced government spending and increased government revenue.

I’m not saying this is an easy shift to make. There is a lot of inertia in our policy structure. But we need to move beyond policies that merely protect people with disabilities, as if the only thing worth noting about them is their vulnerability.>/p>

Alignment is where the powerful change comes from. When the needs of the individual with disabilities, the needs of business and the needs of government are all aligned, we get productivity and sustainable growth.

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