Customers with special needs or disabilities represent a large percentage of today's consumer population. According to the ADA, over 50 million Americans have a disability, which means that approximately 18% of the population are navigating the effects of some form of disability or special needs. With the U.S. Department of Labor estimating that this population segment has around $175 billion in discretionary spending power, it's a market your business can't afford to overlook.
Working diligently to serve these customers is not only good business, it’s your company’s legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. When you begin focusing on how to better serve customers with disabilities, making your business more accessible and inclusive, it can actually help you service all customers. Here are some helpful tips your business can use to make sure you’re not missing out on serving the business needs of this large population.
Disabilities and Special Needs Come in Many Different Forms
First, it’s important to understand that disabilities and special needs come in many different forms. Disabilities may be hidden, permanent, visible, or they might only happen at certain times. Disabilities can happen to anyone, and while some are born with a disability, others develop a disability as a result of an accident or injury. Simply growing older can result in limitations and disabilities. Just a few of the types of disabilities include:
- Mental health
- Language or speech
Since disabilities can vary so greatly, it’s essential to avoid assuming what individuals can or cannot do. It’s also important to make sure that you don’t discount someone’s disability just because you cannot see it.
Be Aware of ADA Guidelines and Obligations
Take some time and learn more about what’s required of you by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This way you can make sure you’re covering the ADA’s legal obligations. Even more importantly, doing so will ensure that you’re taking steps to make your business more accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA provides comprehensive guidelines for building layout and design to ensure you offer better accessibility to more customers.
Some areas of your business have specific accessibility requirements, and some of the areas that you may need to assess for accessibility include:
- Emergency Exists
- Service Counters
- Parking Lot
- Outdoor Areas (including sidewalks and curb cuts)
- Communication and Signs (Braille, TTY, etc.)
- Public bathrooms
To learn more about accessibility requirements, you can contact your regional ADA center.
A big part of the ADA is a provision that lets you know that certain customers may need special assistance at specific times. This could mean you need to make some minor adjustments in your business’ processes, your business website, or rules to give customers with disabilities greater access. This is actually one of the best ways you can serve people with disabilities and special needs – listening to their requests.
To learn more about the ADAs guidelines, they offer an educational ADA course for businesses that is packed with helpful information.
"Person-First" Service and Language
To better serve individuals with disabilities, it’s important to make sure you and your employees are using person-first service and language. What does this mean? See the person first, not the disability. When it comes to service, it’s as simple as treating the individual as a person, speaking to them directly and looking them in the eye. Don’t make the mistake of staring, avoiding eye contact, or only speaking to the person who may be accompanying them.
Person-first language is also important. It’s important to choose the right words when communicating with or about individuals with disabilities. You want to avoid language that is hurtful, condescending, demeaning, or pitying. For example, instead of saying statements such as “blind person,” “deaf person,” or “autistic person,” using person-first language puts the person first: “person who is blind,” person who cannot hear,” or “person with autism.”
Etiquette Tips All Employees Should Follow
Certain basic etiquette tips should be followed by employees to better serve patients with disabilities. Helpful tips recommended by the ADA include:
- Treat every person like they are a valued customer and avoid patronizing.
- Offer assistance and then listen to the responses given. Follow instructions given or if your assistance is rejected, respect the answer and do not insist on providing assistance.
- Avoid feeding, distracting, or petting service animals.
- Realize that every individual’s disability is different, so avoid making assumptions about anyone’s limitations or abilities. If you’re unsure what a person needs, ask questions.
- Always treat customers with disabilities with respect, courtesy, and dignity.
- Stay calm and professional when dealing with unfamiliar situations.
Practical Tips to Remember
Practical tips that will help your business better serve customers with special needs and disabilities include:
- Welcoming service animals into your business. Remember, service animals can help with many types of disabilities, offering assistance for people who are deaf, blind, use wheelchairs, have epilepsy, have diabetes, and more.
- Train your staff members proper etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities.
- Ensure your staff is informed on your business’ accessible practices, policies, and features, and make sure they have the training needed to accurately answer questions about them.
- When creating emergency evacuation plans, be sure to include customers with disabilities.
- Take measures to ensure your business website is also accessible.
- Before you deny a request that is disability-related, take the time to think about alternative solutions. Remember, improving access doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can increase revenue for your business.
- Remember that federal tax incentives are available to help your business hire employees with disabilities and to improve accessibility for your business.
- Talk to people who live with a variety of disabilities. Ask for advice about how your business can improve and help them. They are your best resource for learning the best ways to better serve them.
Remember, when you take measures to improve your service for customers with disabilities, everyone benefits. Learning to better serve these customers will make your entire customer-base happier, and it can do great things for your company’s bottom line, too.