This post was co-written by Jessica Hunt and Kali Wasenko. Jessica Hunt is the Attorney Advisor for the DC Office of Disability Rights, and is a licensed attorney in DC, KY, and VA. Kali is an External Engagement Specialist at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and a disability rights ally.
You could say I’m an adrenaline junkie.
For my 31st birthday, I decided to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
That fact alone may not make me much different from a lot of the adventure seekers you see in your business every day. Here’s what makes me different: I’m a person with a physical disability.
In the US, there are 57 million people with disabilities-a potential well of untapped customers! These are people who thrive on adventure, seek cool vacation spots, and are willing to pay for unique experiences.
I’m here to tell you how to get us in the door and provide an experience that keeps us coming back for more.
What Should You Know?
Customers with Disabilities Are Good for Business
You may already know that your business has a legal obligation to provide services to customers with disabilities. What you may not know is that those customers with disabilities spend an average of 13 billion per year on travel and unique experiences.
And just like any other group of people: if you provide excellent service to one, we will tell our friends.
Take me for example. Since my first jump, three of my friends with physical disabilities have also fallen out of planes on purpose…and loved it.
Their decisions were influenced by my positive experience with a local business in my area. And, of course, also influenced by the fact that I survived to write this post!
Accessibility Doesn’t Need to Cost an Arm and A Leg
When you think to yourself about what makes a space accessible, I am willing to bet that most of you picture ramps on buildings and grab bars in bathrooms (read: things that cost your business money).
Accessibility doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg!
In fact, some of the easiest modifications you can put in place to accommodate customers with disabilities come at absolutely no cost to you. Like these:
1. Train your staff to use respectful language.
Using the right language toward people with disabilities can go a long way in making us feel welcome at your meeting or event. Putting the person before the disability is what is called “Person-first language”. This is the most common form of respectful language toward people with disabilities. Many states even recognize it by law.
Not sure what to say, or how to address a person who walks through your door? The National Inclusion Project has prepared a handy cheat sheet for just such a tongue-tied moment. You can find it here.
2. Eye Contact is Key.
Even if you’re saying the right words, eye contact is key. You should speak directly to with person with a disability, not just with their family, friends, or travel companions. This shows that you acknowledge their personhood, and want them to enjoy everything you have to offer.
3. Evaluate your space.
Accessibility is more than just a ramp and a smiling face. It’s also a willingness to accommodate more than just a wheelchair.
You should consider whether your space is equipped to welcome guests with service animals. Or whether your videos have captions.
4. Get Training for free.
Consider ways your business can provide accommodation to your guests for free.
Training staff to assist customers with mobility disabilities or guide people who are blind or low vision costs nothing but a little time and flexibility.
There are resources to help!
The US has ten regional Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Technical Assistance Centers who are at your service to provide free in-person and online training on accommodating your customers.
They are available to answer your questions by phone in real time too.
Find your nearest Center here.
5. Look at what Other Businesses are doing.
Consider business models like yours, and look at how they have made their experiences accessible. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? It can also be the most profitable.
6. Use volunteers.
Don’t be afraid to use volunteers.
There may be a qualified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter near you looking to get some hours toward a new certification.
Offer them a chance to partner with you when you have a request from a Deaf patron.
Free interpreting services for you + free certification hours for the interpreter + effective communication for the Deaf customer = a winning experience for all involved.
What if you can’t meet your customer’s needs?
If your space, meeting or event does not address a particular customer’s needs, don’t turn them away. Let the customer tell you how they would like to proceed. It is their experience, after all. You are just bringing them to it.
No Two People Are the Same
As the largest minority, people with disabilities are everywhere… and we all experience life differently.
When we travel we bring friends, and sometimes, those friends are also people with disabilities.
I often travel with my boyfriend, who is Deaf. When it comes to access, we have completely different needs, but that does not mean we should not be able to experience things together.
It is important that your staff knows how to handle a group with multiple chair users. Or people who are Deaf and/or Blind, and with people with intellectual disabilities.
Just because you’ve seen one of us, does not mean you’ve seen all of us. As long as you start from a place of respect, we will know that you care about our experience with your business.
When You’re Not Sure What to Do, Just Ask
If this is your first time interacting with a customer with a disability, relax.
Assumptions help no one.
If you’re not sure how to accommodate a person with a disability, just ask that person what they need.
Even with all the technical assistance resources you can access, the knowledge that comes from your customers’ personal experience is often the best resource you can consult.
If my skydiving instructor Mario hadn’t asked me what would be the most comfortable way for me to exit the plane, he wouldn’t have known what I need to keep me safe. And I might have missed out on incredible views like this one:
Look at that sunset! I was upside down at the time…but I saw it…eventually.
Image Description: A glowing setting sun behind clouds and a distant horizon. The silhouette of two, connected skydivers falling upside down are on the left side of the image. Their parachute has just deployed.
But because we had that conversation, my birthday sunset skydive was a success…
And I lived to tell about it.
Don’t just take my word for it. Watch the Disability Sensitivity Training Video prepared by the DC Office of Disability Rights for a few more pointers from people with disabilities themselves.
Still need more info? Contact your local disability rights office. They can talk through scenarios with you and help you ensure that you are providing customers with an experience that is both accessible and fun.
Improving Accessibility of Your Business
Now that you know improving accessibility can lead to new and more satisfied customers, are you prepared to take the next steps?
There are many ways you make changes today. To get the ball rolling ask yourself the questions we wrote below. These questions will help you think about different types of access needs.
Once you’ve mastered these topics, ask your new customers and friends with disabilities what else you can do to be a responsible business.
- Do I advertise to advocate groups?
- Are my staff members knowledgeable of the rights of guests with service animals?
- Can customers with physical disabilities get to my business/the meeting location?
- How can my product be modified to reach new customers with disabilities?
- Do I know how to get qualified ASL interpreters?
- Do I have a budget set aside to provide qualified ASL interpreters with proper notice (3-5 business days) or other requests for reasonable accommodations?
- Are my staff members trained to provide excellent customer service to guests with different types of disabilities?
- Do I have a plan to support customers with disabilities in an emergency?
None of these are paid endorsements; they are just links that I think you might find helpful.
ADA Center Locator
ADA Leadership Network General Resources
Business Case for Effectively Serving Customers with Disabilities
Customers with Disabilities Mean Business: The Spending Power of the Disability Community
Disability Sensitivity Training Video
Disabled Sports USA
Get Certified as an Inclusive Fitness Trainer
National Disability Rights Network Contact Chart
No Barriers Summit
Smithsonian Institute Accessible Exhibition Guide
Tips for Creating Accessible Electronic Materials