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Self-Driving Cars and People with Disabilities

After my last blog post on incorporating the input of consumers with disabilities in development of innovative products, I came across this timely and very detailed article: Autonomous driving is here, and it’s going to change everything. Self-driving cars will eventually displace manual driving, and as in the 1920s when “horseless carriages” hit the roads, society won’t be the same again. My children may be part of the first generation in 100 years to not get driver’s licenses.

Yet one theme was silent in this informative article. Where are the elderly and the people with disabilities? Self-driving cars will unleash innovation on a significant scale, and no corner of society will be affected. “Massive disruption to urban mobility,” the article states.

People with disabilities are 15-20% of the U.S. market. A good percentage of them are not able to drive. Statistics are here, here, and here. A potentially large market that could experience greater mobility and independence.

It’s a textbook case of the point I made in my last blog post: innovation can deliver significant benefits to portions of society, yet people with disabilities, including the elderly, are not always considered during the development and marketing process for innovative products. Even when they are some of the more likely beneficiaries of innovation.

Far from being a promise of mobility and independence for people with disabilities, the development of self-driving products may end up disenfranchising the people it could benefit. Because when self-driving cars are developed, the design of the cars will be important, and care must be given to making these cars as accessible to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities.

Should every car be accessible? One likely assumption of a self-driving world is that car ownership will decline significantly among individuals, with more self-driving cars owned and operated by car-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Should a percentage of self-driving cars owned by car sharers be accessible? Why even put a percentage on it? Why make consumers with disabilities go through the effort of requesting a specific accessible car to pick them up? It’s very possible they end up waiting longer for accessible cars than non-accessible cars.

Already, today’s completely self-driving prototypes are not accessible.

There are two good articles on this discussion:

I would hope that in any policy and development discussions in government and among businesses, strong consideration be given to the market segment that represents 15-20% of the U.S. population and who could benefit the most from a self-driving world.

Awesome Cool New Stuff…If It Works

My wife recently sent me a link to this provocatively appealing Indiegogo crowdfunding project, named Titan Note. According to its developers, Titan Note listens to what is being said in a lecture or meeting, and take notes for you. Besides the obvious benefits to anyone of not missing out on lectures and speeches, a deaf student or attendee would instinctively see the benefits of this product (disclosure: I’m deaf). Reliant on transcription, captioning, or sign or oral interpreting services, the deaf person would view Titan Note as a convenient, cost-effective replacement that could be taken wherever the person goes.

Over the past two decades, we in the deaf community have seen many promises of perfect voice recognition fall by the wayside, so we are naturally skeptical of such claims. I for one am not sold yet on Titan Note, and will wait to hear if this catches on. Still, Titan Note and other similar innovations highlight the role of different strands of technology in opening up functional access usually taken for granted by people WITHOUT disabilities. Innovation, per se, is a way to solve persistent issues with current products encountered by a significant number of consumers. In many cases, innovation does not always take into account the needs of people with disabilities, even if the benefits to these types of people are obvious.

Any new product that breaks the mold in any product category — in other words (loosely), an innovative product — has the potential to excite and inspire a market that has little use for current or new non-innovative products. When marketed right, the benefits of innovative products are obvious and appealing to those with a specific need for them. For people with disabilities, these marketing campaigns tend not to mention or focus on any aspect of disability, at least initially. Even if that product addresses a specific need or want generated by the disability itself.

Take the Kindle, for instance: its text-to-speech feature in early-generation Kindles democratized the reading market for those with blindness and other vision issues, by incorporating digital transmission with audio in a format that avoided the friction of purchasing separate audiobooks. Although it was missing the human voice, the availability of text-to-speech opened up options for a large section of the disability market. However, after the fourth-generation Kindle, text-to-speech features were eliminated from newer Kindles, taking away the benefit to blind and visually-challenged readers. It was only with the 2016 rollout of the new Kindle e-reader that blind readers were able to utilize text-to-speech, albeit not so easily. (Link: Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2016)

Gerard Goggin, professor of media and communications at the University of Sydney, wrote in his 2008 article, “Innovation & Disability”, that developing innovative technologies — whether intentionally for people with disabilities, or intentionally for the broader market — usually do not always include people with disabilities in design discussions.

Innovation, in and of itself, can help drive the economy by jumpstarting a company’s revenues and profits, or bringing in new jobs through growing startups, usually by entering new markets. To the extent that a new idea for a product could benefit people with and without disabilities, it makes good sense to include people with disabilities in all stages of the product development process for innovative products. Because, this way, chances are better that these products will function better for people with and without disabilities. And ultimately help drive innovation overall.

Consumers with Disabilities Have a Choice

Adult male with gray hair sitting on a wheelchair and working on a laptop. Caption on top says

From the Karman Healthcare website: https://www.karmanhealthcare.com/blog/2013/07/22/disabled-how-to-choose-a-wheelchair/

In marketing lingo, a “pain point” is a problem experienced by a consumer that keeps him or her from satisfying a need or want. The need can be basic, or, to borrow from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, at a higher level of need. We are hungry and need to buy food. We are cold and need to turn on the heat. We are bored, and want to do something (ski down a black diamond run? ride a powerful sporty car from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds? climb up Yosemite’s Half Dome?) to satisfy our need for excitement. All three examples are “pain points.” Businesses address pain points by introducing new products or services, improving their current offerings, or targeting new markets with their current offerings.

For a consumer with a disability (CwD), he or she has a pain point that consumers without disabilities do not have: a need or want that is not satisfied because of the disability itself. It can be something as mundane as being nearsighted (to take a very loose definition of disability itself) and not being able to see clearly across the room, or as complex as having severe spinal cord injuries that preclude caring for oneself, moving around, or eating on his or her own. In all cases, those types of pain points spur innovation through the development of products or services that address the limitations generated by the disability.

Such as the wheelchair to enable those with mobility limitations to get around. The hearing aid so those with difficulty hearing can get better hearing. A mouse that can be controlled by eye movement, for those who do not use their hands to navigate the computer. Clothing to fit those whose bodies do not conform to what is considered typical dimensions by apparel designers.

That’s obvious to anyone, so why write about this?

A reality that many CwDs are all too aware of, but little noticed among those without disabilities, is that many disability-related products do not always fully address their disability. Like any other market segment, CwDs are constantly looking for new products that more fully address their disability. If we need a better laptop because the current one is not good enough for today’s powerful new apps, then we hope there’s a new laptop coming that will perform better. So it is with my cochlear implants (CIs): they have truly helped me hear better, much more than the hearing aids of my childhood and early adulthood. Yet I want better sound clarity and easier operation of the CIs (for example, the volume and program buttons are too small, and the headpieces get tangled with each other).

Certainly, it’s important for those with influence in business to be aware of what CwDs want in terms of accessible products. Yet, as is typical of the business world, some business leaders have a social orientation that motivates them to address CwDs’ wants regardless of level of investment, and other business leaders are motivated only by profit and do not value the social good that comes out of an increased investment in accessibility. Although this sounds cynical, it’s important to highlight this in the context of an important trend in the disability market.

At a minimum, one of every 6 Americans has a disability. By 2050, that number could possibly increase to nearly 1 of every 4, in large part due to aging baby boomers and medical advances that improve the quality of life of people with disabilities and lengthen their lifespans.

To even the most jaded businessperson, that kind of growth in such a large market is potentially lucrative. And when a market is set to grow reliably and stably over the next two to three decades, this lends itself to interesting opportunities.

Where does all this lead to? With more investment in products and services for CwDs, there can be more consumer choices for CwDs, with a better chance of satisfying the wants generated by the consumers’ disabilities.

And to do well in this market requires collecting and analyzing data. This part of the equation, surprisingly enough, needs work. While businesses that specialize in products addressing a specific type of disability do well in collecting data about their customers, as a general observation, the disability market lags behind other similarly-sized markets in terms of available consumer data to assess and analyze.

Whether it is at the innovation stage or the mature stage of the product life cycle, CwDs will always have some demand for products that address their disability, as a solid, stable quality of life is essential to them. So while the disability market is growing significantly, this presents opportunities for new products that should excite and satisfy the many different types of CwDs — and their families and friends. And in the quest for these new products, it is essential to get an understanding, through analyzing consumer data, of the “pain points” that CwDs experience in their use of products that address their specific disabilities.

Inclusion in Advertising

The above advertisement (no captions) aired last week by General Mills portraying a biracial couple generated unflattering, racist comments across the Internet. While the company properly demonstrated its commitment to inclusion by keeping the advertisement on the air and removing what they termed “not family-friendly” comments from their social media sites, advertising executive Donny Deutsch made a very salient point yesterday about inclusion:

“What’s unfortunate is that I still think 97 percent of companies would stay away from [portraying mixed race themes] because they would say, ‘I don’t need the letters.’ Which is a shame, because in reality when you do an ad like this, yes, there will be some fringe crazy people,’’ Deutsch said on TODAY Monday. “Fringe crazy people go crazy about everything, but in reality you’re making a statement about your company: ‘We’re progressive, we’re inclusive, we are about today.’

“Great advertising holds up a mirror to who we are and where we’re going. We see it in TV, we see it in movies, and advertising is still very late to the game. My challenge to advertisers out there – get with where the country is going.”

So if a person with a disability appears in an advertisement, is it inevitable that there will also be discriminatory comments? Yes.

And my next comment would be: Who cares?

Let me qualify this point: It is my sincere hope that there will never be any discriminatory comments against people with disabilities, or anyone else. More inclusion in advertising and marketing will reduce these kinds of comments. And when I say “who cares?” it means I am not dignifying any discriminatory comments with an answer.

Advertising is indeed late to the game, as Deutsch points out. It’s all in the data — just as the United States’ mixed-race population showed a 32 percent increase from 2000 to 2010, so the number of people with disabilities is going to increase with better quality of care, and more baby boomers hitting old age and its attendant disabilities. According to ABCNews, almost 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, which translates to 57 million people.

Advertising, like art, is creative. However, unlike art, which often allows for free expression, advertising decisions are guided by business strategies. Companies develop advertisements in alignment with their own business decisions, which are geared toward maximizing profit and market share.

So in a sense, advertising is not completely at fault for the lack of inclusion. While advertising agencies do have a responsibility to promote inclusion in advertising, the companies — the hands that feed the advertising world — also have the responsibility to decide what should be in their own advertising. So, to take Donny Deutsch’s words, not only advertisers, but also companies, should “get with where the country is going.”

Google Glass, Wearable Technology, and Accessibility

Forget the iPhone and the iPad, they are yesterday’s news. There is hype – justified or not – over the next big thing in technology: wearable computers.

Whether it is a Dick Tracy-like wristband computer from Apple (a rumor making the rounds lately), a computer mounted on eyeglasses, or even a current Nano with a wristband, clearly the mobile revolution has not ended with the smartphone and the tablet.

All this is incredibly fascinating and amazing. Unfortunately – I hate to burst the bubble – history teaches us that each new innovation in technology creates new accessibility problems. Wearable technology WILL make it possible to do more hands-free computing, and deliver access in more places than ever – which will change lives for those who are not able to use their desktops and mobiles the way most of us do. But it will negatively affect some disability groups.

When cellphones broke into the mainstream, the TTYs and TDDs that deaf people relied on for phone communications were not designed to accommodate these mobile products, and quickly became outmoded because of slow communication speeds. As more hearing people moved their telephone communications away from their desktops and homes, communication mobility increased around the world. Yet that form of mobility did not benefit deaf people – this segment continued to be tethered to desktop communications because there was simply no effective mobile alternative out there. It was only until hearing-aid compatibility standards, along with front-facing cameras, were implemented on smartphones (and later, tablets) that deaf people could finally use their “phones” anywhere.

I showed the Google Glass video (posted above) to my Introduction to Marketing classes at Gallaudet University, a higher-education institution for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, as an in-class example of an innovative new product. The goal was to encourage the class to identify which markets would be attracted to this product. The feedback was almost uniform among my students: Google Glass was not Deaf-friendly. More specifically, for those who primarily use sign language to communicate.

For a potential technology that could dominate pop culture in the next decade, this raises a relevant issue: can Google Glass – or wearable computers for that matter — ever be completely accessible? Amazing possibilities exist for people who have difficulty using their hands to operate computers, tablets, or smartphones. And for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who rely on spoken language as a primary mode of communication, Google Glass would bring captioning and voice recognition to a very accessible level – indeed, to understand anyone anytime, anywhere. However, for those who rely on sign language, wearable computing – as it is currently designed – fails the accessibility test.

The way sign language is communicated, it requires the communicators to position themselves almost face-to-face. The outward-facing camera in Google Glass will, at best, look at sign language from behind – and even then, at a very awkward angle. Most of the time, sign language will not be recorded with this product.

Wearable technologies are primarily designed to free up hands for other activities. Since smartphones and tablets must be held with at least one hand when communicating over the phone, deaf signers need a way to communicate with both hands. That is the implied promise of Google Glass.

So as – if I predict correctly – wearable technologies take the lead over smartphones as the next hottest cultural product, it is my hope that there can be innovative ways to incorporate visual communication into this increasingly popular technology platform.

Crossing The Upper East Side

Assisted Pedestrian Signal at an intersection in Germany

Assisted Pedestrian Signal at an intersection in Germany.

As a resident of New York’s Upper East Side, I was very surprised to read Monday’s article on DNAInfo.com about local opposition to the installation of audible signals for the blind at Upper East Side street corners. While the article, also on Gothamist, pushes unflattering local stereotypes about my neighborhood, and the New York Post’s article is littered with awful puns, the more relevant discussion is why anyone here on the Upper East Side would be bothered about noise at traffic intersections.

“This is the worst proposal I’ve ever heard of for a neighborhood that doesn’t need it.”

“I’ve never once seen a blind person cross the street by themselves. These people are assisted because we are a neighborhood.”

“There is no indication there are that many incapacitated people using the intersections that were noted.”

Assisted? Incapacitated? Let’s see, every blind person needs to be assisted in my neighborhood, because they are incapacitated, which in the New Oxford American Dictionary means “deprived of strength or power.” Therefore, audible pedestrian signals are not needed in my neighborhood where traffic honks and screams through Madison, Park, Lexington, Third and Second on a daily basis — not to mention 59th, 68th, 72nd, 79th, 86th and 96th Streets. Ironically, that is where several of the audible signal locations have been proposed.

My favorite Blind Film Critic, Tommy Edison, posted the video below last year documenting his experience crossing a NYC intersection, presumably to show how incapacitated he is (if we are to take the proposal opponents’ statements at their word). He’s a funny guy, but this video is deadly serious.

According to the DNAInfo.com article referenced above, there are 48 documented intersections with audible signals in New York City.

In Toronto, there are 518 intersections equipped with audible signals. Also called accessible pedestrian signals, or APS, they are also on practically every street corner in Sydney and Melbourne. And Stockholm, Sweden too. And other cities.

On a daily basis, I typically see at least two blind pedestrians walking NYC’s streets and subway platforms — including the Upper East Side. They don’t need “to be assisted because we are a neighborhood,” but it would be nice if they could cross the street without worrying about traffic.

My response to the opponents of the APS proposal: Who cares? Put the audible signals up already.

Back In the Saddle

Michael Janger sits at a table overlooking the Cappadocia landscape in Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey, August 2012

The last time I wrote in the DrumBeat blog, it was a warm and summery 75 degrees in Manhattan, and Central Park’s trees were overrun with newly grown leaves. Today, it is barely the other side of freezing, the city’s sidewalks are littered with discarded Christmas trees, and I am reviewing my achievements of the past year.

Many of you know about this blog, which I created to increase awareness about marketing trends influencing people with disabilities. But since June 13th, over six months ago, I have not actively blogged while I traveled through Turkey and the Netherlands, and then took on a full-time faculty role as a marketing professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

When I accepted the opportunity to teach several marketing courses at Gallaudet, an internationally-known university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, I had grand, exciting plans to combine my academic teaching with my consulting and blogging pursuits in the disability marketing space. I was scheduled to teach three courses on Mondays and Wednesdays during the fall semester. With Tuesday budgeted for class preparation, grading, and student meetings, I targeted Thursdays and Fridays for consulting and blogging.

Professors in many colleges and universities pursue off-campus interests to enhance their teaching. It’s a powerful, effective way to bring the real world into the classroom (and vice versa). Yet, as Dwight Eisenhower famously said, planning is everything, but when the battle is joined, plans are useless. I knew that, as a first-time teacher, I would learn new work habits that my 20 years in the business world have not yet taught me. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer scale of the freshman professor’s learning curve at Gallaudet.

I sometimes got blank stares from students when I threw a question or two in an attempt to stimulate class discussion — when awkward silences followed, I gamely retreated to my pre-planned lecture. I attempted to wake up bleary-eyed freshmen at my 8:30 a.m. classes with some amusing icebreakers: sometimes they worked, sometimes not. Most important of all, I needed to bring my sign language skills to the rigorous level of academic inquiry demanded in Gallaudet’s classrooms. How else could I sign “departmentalization” when teaching a class session on a corporation’s organizational structure? Sometimes I ended up signing “good” (as in “VERY good!”) when I meant to sign the common Economics 101 term “a good.”

As Ellen Gordon Reeves, an erstwhile stage performer and author of a highly recommended book on job hunting and preparation, said in response to a question about education and creativity, “Teaching is performing.” It’s not just parroting the material in the textbook. It’s making the course content come alive in the classroom.

I quickly re-prioritized my goals to focus on learning what it takes to be a good professor. As a consequence, I cleared out my consulting obligations and put my blogging on hold. Teaching is an awesome responsibility: learning is the gateway to success for students, and teachers facilitate this learning. Now, a little wiser with my second semester on Gallaudet’s faculty, I am re-starting my consulting role, and getting back into blogging when the occasion calls for it.

The students have been the most amazing part of my experience during my first semester at Gallaudet. They are a wonderfully diverse microcosm of the worldwide deaf community: undergraduates and graduates with varied levels of hearing loss, from vastly different cultures around the world such as India, Ghana, France, and Gallaudet’s home country, the United States. I learned a great deal from the students during my first semester — enough to realize they learn differently, and thus requiring different ways to be taught the same material.

My students work hard to achieve a common goal: to get a good job in the real world when they graduate. Some students have asked me how they can get a job if their deafness makes it difficult for employers to want to hire them. I tell them the most critical element of their job search is the skill set they bring to the table. Employers that evaluate candidates on their skills, rather than on their limitations, are more open to hiring deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Yet, according to Think Beyond the Label, we still need more of these types of employers. There is a persistent habit among many recruiters to focus — consciously or unconsciously — first on a potential employee’s disability before evaluating his or her skills and qualifications.

So whether we, as people with disabilities, like it or not, we have to advocate for ourselves. We must learn to effectively sell ourselves to prospective employers on our skills. By bringing these skills out in front before our prospective employers, we stimulate interest and improve our chances of getting job offers. Over time, this opens employers’ minds to what people can do with their skills, regardless of their ability or disability.

It works to everyone’s mutual benefit: employers get the people they want based on their skills, and people with disabilities find better employment.

In that spirit, my best wishes to each and every one, of all kinds of abilities, a happy and successful 2013!

Access For People Without (Yes, Without) Disabilities

Silver colored tea kettle from OXO, with cork handle designed for ease of use

OXO Uplift Tea Kettle, designed to be used by those with difficulty using their hands.

Sometimes, when people think of accessibility, they picture wheelchair ramps running up side entrances of buildings, on-board lifts on public buses, and large toilet stalls in many public bathrooms. Although these features provide invaluable and needed access to people with disabilities, they are “potent symbols of separateness,” as University of Oregon professor Polly Welch put it. If they are usable only by a person with a disability, the wider community does not typically appreciate the value of inclusion for this person.

But if everyone else also uses this accessibility feature, it has two dramatic effects: it increases the market reach for the business that sells and markets this product, and increases awareness of the economic and cultural value of the disability market.

The concept of designing an accessibility feature that is usable by everyone – known as inclusive design or universal design – was illustrated by two events this past week: Apple’s iOS 6 announcement, and a push by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to increase awareness about online captioning not only for themselves but for everyone.

Why is inclusive design important? Simple. The easier it is to use a product, the more customers will buy it or use it.

On Monday, Apple announced the new iOS 6 operating system for their mobile products, and new MacBook Pros and Airs with Retina Display. Prominent in this announcement was the launch of new features promising increased usability by people with disabilities. Among these features (summarized here by Luis Perez):

  • “Guided Access,” which can be used by autistic users, and also intended to be used by everyone.
  • Expansion of FaceTime to cellular transmission via the iPhone 4S and new iPad, enhancing access for deaf and hard-of-hearing users.
  • “Made for iPhone” hearing aids, which interface with the iPhone.
  • Integration of VoiceOver with AssistiveTouch, improving usability among people with multiple disabilities.
  • Siri’s launch-app feature, expanding usability to blind and low-vision users.

What Apple has attempted to do is ensure that anyone – you, me, or someone else – is able to use its products without having to create a separate product.

Last week, advocates in the deaf community launched a social media-based movement to increase awareness of the lack of captioning of online content. The #captionTHIS movement – which uses a Twitter hashtag to spread the word – highlighted the frustration among deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers who are seeing their video content become increasingly inaccessible as it migrates to the Web. Whereas captioning is available on most major television and cable channels, there is no equivalent level of accessibility on the Internet. While MSNBC provides subtitling on many of its online news clips, none of CNN’s online videos are captioned – prompting a lawsuit in California by the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD).

Today, the Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC) followed up on the #captionTHIS movement with a video of its own, where deaf and hard-of-hearing people around the world describe what it is like to be “left out” when they cannot understand non-captioned movies, videos, or conversations.

Implicit in both captioning movements is an inescapable fact: captioning is also used by those who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing. It is used in restaurants and bars, where ambient noise necessitates the use of captioning so people can watch sports events and other programs. It is used by people who want to learn English. And it is scalable in other languages: there are also Spanish-language captions on many Spanish TV channels and even on English channels.

Some content owners have opposed calls to caption their own content, citing costs, copyrights, or other issues. This misses the point: if more eyes are able to view and understand online video content, it means increased visibility for the content producers, translating to higher royalties and revenues in some cases – a win-win for both the content owners and those who view their content.

Inclusive design, in its most ideal form, means a product designed to be used by anyone. In reality, it is very difficult to ensure that a product can be used by anyone, anywhere, regardless of a disability. On the other hand, designing a product so it is usable by as many people as possible can translate into increased sales and greater visibility – and help debunk the “separate but equal” perception that continues to persist in the disability access dialogue.

A young white boy is holding onto his white mother’s hand and is pointing to a group of wheelchair users in front of him. The mother is wearing a pink dress and matching shoes and has dark grey hair. The youngster has his brown hair cut into a crew cut and is wearing a green top, with blue trousers and matching socks. The four wheelchair users are all identical in every detail. They all look exactly the same: White, balding males wearing red tops and dark blue trousers. They are also all using identical red, self propelled wheelchairs. They are in fact mirror images of each other. The youngster is saying to his mother: "Oh look – it’s the Disabled!"

Courtesy of crippencartoons.co.uk

On my Twitter stream this morning, I came across an article from disability author Gary Karp that is particularly appropriate for marketers and advertisers who want to connect with the market of consumers with disabilities. In it, Karp outlines three principles of “disability etiquette”:

(1) They are people first.
(2) They treasure their independence.
(3) They are experts at their disabilities.

There is at least an empirical basis for his comments: a survey earlier this year showed that elderly people with disabilities want dignity and a sense of control. Although this survey focused on mature consumers (those over 60 years old), they are the age group with the highest proportion of people with disabilities. For them, access and independence are paramount.

At a basic level, people with disabilities desire independence, dignity, and a quality of life just like their non-disabled peers. Karp writes:

The general stereotype holds that living with a disability is difficult, so the natural impulse many have is to help. However much a person might need help in certain situations, what they are able to do for themselves is all the more precious…. Ultimately, helping is about who gets to choose, who’s in control.

It’s about empowerment. It’s about giving consumers with disabilities the ability to choose the products and services they want, that gives them a sense of independence and a level of control over their lives.

So when a consumer with a disability sees or hears a marketing message that speaks to these desires, he or she will listen. An offer to help, not so much.

As data about customers and their markets become plentiful and more easily available, Marketing ROI is becoming an increasingly popular tool for assessing the ability of companies to connect with their customers through advertising and brand-building. While Marketing ROI is not the perfect solution to the ever present problem of accurately measuring the impact of advertising campaigns on future sales, it gives marketers and advertisers a certain level of rigor in their evaluation of advertisements.

To most people, ROI – return on investment – is a concept commonly associated with financial analysis. In its most basic definition, ROI is a tool for measuring the payback on an investment. You invest $100 to build a lemonade stand, and hope to sell enough cups of lemonade over time to turn a profit and pay back the investment, and then some. In marketing, ROI is applied to the measurement of sales generated by a marketing campaign, against the expenditures of executing this campaign. Comparing various marketing campaigns on the basis of ROI can inform future marketing strategy.

One of the nagging issues with marketing to people with disabilities is the disconnect between what businesses are marketing and how disabled consumers perceive these marketing efforts. While there are companies that are successful at reaching out to their target market effectively – Cochlear Corporation (cochlear implant manufacturer) and Braunability (wheelchair-accessible vans) come to mind – there are plenty of other companies that fall short in meeting the standards that disabled consumers expect. For every Oscar Pistorius in a Nike advertisement, there is an advertisement that fails to connect with people with disabilities. It is particularly common among companies that do not specialize in the disability market.

It is no surprise that an AT Kearney survey of the mature consumer market (those over 60 years old, and the most likely to have disabilities among any age group) showed persistently negative views of advertising efforts. It’s not the medium, it’s the message: a message that says “I can help you” rather than addresses what excites and inspires people with disabilities, which are prevalent among older consumers.

It goes back to how businesses arrived at the most common perception – or misperception, for that matter – of people with disabilities: people that need help, and demand help. The disability market, as a whole, is a diverse, vibrant community of people whose lives are shaped in varying degrees by their disability. Some embrace it, some mitigate it, some undertake procedures to eliminate it. But all of them have one thing in common: it is not “seeking help.” They desire dignity, a sense of control, and a quality of life just like their non-disabled peers. The companies that recognize this are more successful at reaching out to a market that can represent up to 20% of their customer base.

Marketing ROI is one of various tools in marketing to assess whether consumers with disabilities are reacting positively to marketing campaigns. Businesses typically have multiple marketing campaigns covering different channels such as TV, radio, billboard, print, Internet, and mobile. Consumer responses to each campaign – in the form of increased sales, stronger brand perception, or type of direct feedback – differ across channels, and across campaigns within each channel.

Campaigns with the highest ROI are continued, while those with the lowest ROI are killed off or, at best, modified. Even for those with strong ROIs, it is essential to analyze why they perform so well. Is it because of the content in the advertisement? Wide reach? Positive perceptions about the product? It helps to conduct a survey of consumers in the targeted market to assess their reactions to the marketing campaign. Isolating the factors that positively drive ROI can be immensely helpful in designing more effective campaigns in the future.

Keep in mind that ROI is not the perfect tool. Even in the realm of finance – where the ROI concept originated – it is an inexact science. For all the information financial analysts have about a company’s balance sheet, inventory, revenues, costs, competitors, suppliers, products, and industry, it is difficult to accurately forecast the company’s future earnings. It depends on customer behavior, economic trends, political calculations, future interest rates, and estimated cost of capital, among other things. To be able to have any modicum of rigor in a ROI analysis, analysts use sets of assumptions to address incomplete data, test out the assumptions, and if any of them still work, incorporate them into the ROI model.

Marketing is the same thing. How can we measure customer responses to an ad? Do any of these responses convert into sales? How do we know which sales are directly related to the ad, and which sales are organic (in other words, bought for reasons not related to the ad)? Can we find data about our customers – their buying preferences, where they live, their income, how they use the Internet, etc. – that help us develop an advertisement that results in a higher ROI? No matter how much data we collect about our target market, and no matter how rigorous we try to be in measuring the long-term effectiveness of an advertisement, marketing ROI is still an art, not a science. The best way to approach ROI in marketing is as a catalyst for discussion, to generate ideas and opinions on how to increase sales and build brand equity.

With data on customers so easily available today (look up “big data” on Wikipedia), there is one inescapable reality about marketing in the 21st century: the ability to collect, parse, and analyze the results of marketing activities, and quantitatively measuring the benefits of these activities, has never been more important. It does not matter whether your product is digital or not: there is more data on customer buying behaviors than ever before as more users spend more time on the Web with more devices.

So to the extent the data is available, use it. Measure it. Analyze it. You’ll be surprised about what information you can find about your customers with disabilities.