The Economic Model of Disability: A Powerful Framework for Business Decisions

Man in wheelchair and his friends at the Acropolis.
At the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Photo courtesy of ENAT: European Network for Accessible Tourism.)

Are businesses giving the right kind of attention to the market for people with disabilities – a market 54 million strong in the United States, and growing as baby boomers enter their senior years?

Marketing and sales decisions are always driven by the profit motive, and a solid understanding of market demand is essential in the decision-making process. That understanding is informed by how marketers collect data about their target market, a process greatly influenced by ingrained perceptions about the people in that market. In the case of people with disabilities, leaders and decision-makers have tended to view this market within the framework of sociological models that subconsciously help them assess and evaluate the person’s disability.

Of these frameworks, the medical model and the social model are the most popular ones used by sociologists, psychiatrists, doctors and educators to view and interpret disability. These models each have their pros and cons in their application to real-world events. For most of the 20th century, the medical model of disability – the view that the individual has a disability that needs to be corrected – was a popular way to assess a person’s disability. More recently, as people with disabilities asserted their rights through disability rights movements such as Deaf Power Now in 1988, the social model – where people with disabilities view their handicap as part of their lifestyle, and call for accommodations from society to address their handicaps – has been embraced by those in the medical and educational professions.

Yet both models fail to address the economic power and influence of people with disabilities, a diverse demographic with its own unique quirks, idiosyncrasies, and strengths often overlooked by businesses which usually cater to abled markets they can easily understand, research, and ultimately sell their products to. The result? Too many businesses view disability as a problem that must be fixed (the medical model), or that people with disabilities must be accommodated in order to comply with accessibility laws such as the ADA (the social model). Compared to other types of markets – think Latino, teenagers, or West Coast residents – there is less data about the disability market and how marketers and advertisers can effectively target this market.

People with disabilities are limited in how they can choose their products, whether or not these products are meant to accommodate their disability. This is in great part due to a failure of many businesses to adequately understand what people with disabilities want. In most cases, businesses are informed by either the medical model of disability, the social model of disability, or both. Neither model is demand-driven.

TravAbility, a leader in inclusive tourism, released a compelling white paper in November introducing the “economic model of disability”. As an information resource for the travel market, in which aging baby boomers experiencing their own disabilities are a major spending force, TravAbility has an interest in promoting the economic model as a way to encourage the travel industry to think differently about the aging population. In doing so, TravAbility has made a powerful case for why businesses should focus on the market for people with disabilities.

TravAbility cites the demographic shift of age, and its impact on the tourism sector:

In June of [2011] the World Health Organisation and the World Bank released the results of the first ever global study on disability. The report estimates that more than one billion people experience some form of disability. Most studies and reports on disability stop there, however, from an economic point of view the raw data on disability numbers is not the true figure. Research done in Australia by Simon Darcy puts the multiplier effect at three when those directly associated with a person with a disability is taken into account. Those directly affected are family, friends and work colleges. If a person with a disability cannot access a business’s services, like a restaurant, resort or transport then the entire group cannot access those services. In economic terms over 4 billion people worldwide are directly affected by disability which is over one third of the world’s population.

US research by McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2015, the baby boomer generation will command almost 60 percent of net U.S. wealth and 40 percent of spending. In many categories, like travel, boomers will represent over 50 percent of consumption. The impact on the Inclusive Travel sector is significant as over 40% of them will be retiring with some form of disability, raising the total value of direct expenditure to the Inclusive Tourism sector to over 25% of the market by 2020.

TravAbility then introduces the economic model of disability in the context of its application to the tourism sector:

Evolution from the medical to social model of disability saw a major shift in attitude from one that concentrated on teaching an individual how to cope with a disability in an otherwise hostile environment to changing social attitudes to manipulate the environment to be more accessible to a person with a disability. It was a rights issue and based on the premise that society had an obligation to assist those with a disability. The final evolution is to stop concentrating on the “disability” but rather the needs and abilities in a customer focused environment. An economic model of disability changes the basic driver from a rights and compliance issue to a market demand driver. The economic model will change that focus by changing how access is looked upon. Once any industry appreciates that the disabled and their friends are a large market they will start to research their interests.

This chart from TravAbility helpfully summarizes differences between the three models of disability:





SOCIAL issue


Medical care

Social integration

Economic Integration

Individual Treatment

Social action

Product development

Professional help

Individual and collective responsibility

Innovation in design and function

Personal adjustment

Environmental manipulation

Universal design





Human rights

Competitive advantage

Health care policy


Market forces

Individual Adaptation

Social change


I wrote in Brandchannel last month that the market for people with disabilities is going to be greatly redefined by the millions of aging baby boomers who start to experience age-related disabilities for the first time. They will ask for the same types of accessible products and services that lifelong people with disabilities have long asked for. Baby boomers are 25% of the U.S. population – which still dwarfs the populations of younger generations, an unusual departure from the classic population pyramid. This demographic imbalance also exists in other developed nations in Europe and Asia.

Boomers want something to be done about their declining hearing and increasingly blurred vision, and their arthritic hips and slow mental functions. At the same time, they want to relish and enjoy their old age. Knowing they are not spring chickens, they still want to participate in society in spite of, not because of, their new disabilities.

This is demand-driven. Quite simply, there are more people with disabilities, relative to the general population, than ever before, and it will be the reality for the next two decades, with major implications for health care, medicine, and Social Security.

Instead of addressing disability as a personal issue or as a social problem, which places great stress on government agencies and public service providers, businesses can use their talents and expertise to analyze and evaluate the growing disability market, and generate market-driven solutions that effectively accommodate the diverse needs of people with disabilities. When the U.S. and other developed countries are facing severe financial difficulties brought on in large part by funding social services for a growing population of dependents, businesses have an obligation, and perhaps an incentive, to use their deep data-gathering and analysis capabilities to unlock the economic power of the expanding disability market and alleviate financial pressures on national treasuries.

By analyzing the disability market in the context of an economic model that is indifferent about whether a disability should be corrected, or that laws must be enforced to protect people with disabilities, business leaders will uncover surprising and valuable information about people with disabilities and what they can do. Use those learnings to develop appropriate products, services, and marketing strategies for this diverse market, and businesses can realize a better return on their investment in this market. Consumers with disabilities will also benefit: they will have better products and services to choose from that more effectively accommodate their specific disabilities.

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