Help Us by Helping Yourselves: The Massive ROI in People with Disabilities

Don't underestimate the economic power of the disability community. I understand what Tim Cook of Apple meant in February when, speaking at a shareholder meeting, he said, “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”

He was responding to a question about the cost of "green" efforts, posed by shareholders that felt that the company was spending too much on environmental sustainability, and he was trying to distinguish Apple as a company that would be first concerned with doing the right thing and second concerned with stock value.

This post will not debate the question, best left to economists, of the reputational value of being known as a moral company, and the indirect effect of that reputation on stock value. I think that it is there, and should be discussed, just not by me. Rather, I wish to take issue with his example.

As a rule of thumb, we say that one in five Americans has a disability. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 million people. Excuse me, I meant to say 60 million consumers.

What’s more, not only are we 60 million and growing all the time, for pure practicality we need to seek out for products and services that meet our needs. We may not be the richest demographic, but we still need to buy things, and they need to be the things that will work best for us.

This means, unsurprisingly, that blind people will seek out devices, goods and services that work well for blind people, the mobility impaired will seek out those that work well with their mobility impairments, deaf people will seek out those optimized for deaf people, etc. Further, we tend to crowd source in finding products that work for our particular needs. This means that being first to market in product advances that revolutionize the experience for people with disabilities will grab a wide swathe of us, millions of consumers.

Once you’ve got us, there is a inertia against change. Just like any other consumer, your competitor needs to make a substantial advance in quality or price in order to get us to switch. We know that there are people using apple products today for no better reason than that they had iPhones and iPads when Android devices were primitive, clunky, or just hadn’t been invented yet. Regardless a demographic, the first to market gets a head start.

Obviously, I would love to see every manufacturer of every product designing their products to meet the needs of people with disabilities, but I have no problem with economic rewards going to those who act first. I’m counting on it. In fact, I believe it so strongly that I have started a consultancy practice, Capitalizability, specifically to help businesses reap those rewards.

I’m sure that companies do things because they are right. Companies, after all, are filled with human beings, and we like doing nice things.

I’d rather, however, count on a company doing something because it’s smart business. Once in a while, a company might take the high road. If you show them the profitable road, they will take it almost every time, especially if it happens to be perceived as right. When it comes to serving customers with disabilities, the economic opportunity for the first to market is immense.

So, I respect the values that Mr. Cook was expressing, but I have a message for him: Mr. Cook, when you work on making your devices accessible by the blind, please do consider the bloody ROI. Then, let that incentivize you to do even more.