Real Leaders

The $7 Trillion Business Opportunity That Nobody is Talking About

“Well, we ran the numbers, and our bottom line is great: we’ve got a steady stream of sales. However, there’s an untapped market segment worth $7 trillion that we’ve decided to ignore, and will continue to ignore because it seems a little too challenging,” said no business leader ever.

But then again, don’t we unconsciously say this every time we design a product or service that’s not accessible to the one billion people living with a disability? Consider the fact that these individuals, and their immediate families and communities, represent a total spending power of almost $7 trillion.

Seems kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

I hate to argue for disability inclusion in economic terms because the idea that we should not exclude an entire group of people from accessing what most people enjoy (boarding a bus, applying for a job, eating out) is argument enough.

But, let’s look at the numbers, shall we?

There are an estimated one billion people on the planet with a disability. A more sobering fact is that 1 in 3 adults globally live with multiple chronic illnesses. Yet, we exist in spaces that require us to overcome physiological limitations that are outside our control magically.

I live with what can be called a debilitating mental illness. My husband has Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. In the prime of our careers, we had to leave the formal workplace behind to manage our chronic conditions. Between us, we have more than 30 years of experience in international development; an array of skills — from engineering to marketing; degrees from Carnegie Mellon and MIT — and experience in over 50 countries. This isn’t about bragging; I mention this to raise some important questions:

  1. How many brilliant minds are being left out of our workforce because of accessibility issues — be they physical, mental, or learning-oriented?
  2. How many customers have you lost simply because you didn’t design a product that meets their needs, or create a buying experience that made it possible to access your products?
  3. How many amazing contributions to society have we missed because we judged a disabled body as incapable?

We started a social enterprise, Uncomfortable Revolution, to address these questions. We run a lifestyle magazine for people living with chronic illness and disability because we see a future where these obstacles aren’t an issue. By this, I mean that we envision societies and workplaces based on inclusive design, which would help render these issues obsolete.

It’s as if we keep throwing money, in inefficient ways, at the problems we create. We make livelihoods, goods, and entertainment inaccessible, then we use tax dollars to try and remedy the situation and throw fundraisers around inspirational campaigns that celebrate those affected by the very barriers we’ve created. How does this make any sense? Disability isn’t a problem to solve through philanthropy or public sector funding, it’s a market access and representation issue. And the business community has a huge rule to play.

And they have. Sort of. Aerie has made headlines with its disability-inclusive marketing campaign, and Tommy Hilfiger launched an adaptive clothing line. Just last December, global business leaders including Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson and Unilever’s Paul Polman committed to disability inclusion across their businesses and supply chains, and have thrown their support behind #valuable — a campaign to put disability inclusion on the global business agenda.

This is a welcome step forward, but as business leaders, we have to go beyond trendy marketing and make serious commitments (even when inconvenient) to accessibility. Are disabled people in your boardroom or just your billboards? Do you subtitle your video campaigns? Can someone in a wheelchair reach your checkout counter? Is your website accessible?

If not, then you just might be one of those crazy business leaders ignoring a $7 trillion market opportunity. And the chance to do what’s right.


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