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Chapter 7: People with Special Needs as a Market

Mike Martin

People with special needs, particularly those with disabilities, are very often thought of by industry as small groups who are in need of some charitable support. Industry may often put quite considerable sums of money aside to provide such charitable financing.

To date industry, with some specialist exceptions, has not seen that there is a market for products, which on a European or international basis is of considerable size. If the market is viewed solely from a national point of view, particularly for small countries, then the prospects for the design, manufacture and marketing of specialist products are often poor.

While the emphasis in the past has beeon the design and manufacture of specialist products there has been little or no priority given to marketing. In many respects the design and manufacture of products is a question of money being given to the right people to provide a design that meets the real needs of a particular group of people. However, while marketing requires considerable sums of money to implement successfully, in many cases it also requires a strategy to get the information and then the products to the people concerned. People with disabilities, particularly minor ones, may not always be part of an identifiable group but will be members of the vast general public.

All of us, however, become handicapped in certain environments, for example, in low light levels and noisy environment, and therefore products that are suitable for disabled people will also benefit those handicapped by the environment.

People with special needs may range from those with totally handicapping conditions, such as quadriplegia to the minor, but still handicapping conditions such as being moderately visually or hearing impaired. In general the size of the market decreases with the complexity of the disability.

1.0 Marketing Strategies

Visually and hearing impaired people offer a marked contrast in the method of marketing and the general public's attitude to the problem. People who need spectacles are reluctant at first to go for a sight test and to purchase a pair of glasses. However, this action does not carry with it any stigma and the consumer can see people all around wearing glasses. Glasses are optical devices that correct an optical change in the eye and are, therefore, able to restore a function that was deficient; very few prosthetic devices do this so well. Advertising is mainly low key and specialist and today there is a trend for glasses for correcting minor reading problems to be on sale without prescription in a wide variety of shops. In other words, people with sight problems in general have considerable choice and the market is large and well established with very little overt publicity as there are many retail outlets in most towns.

In contrast, the marketing for hearing aids has been aimed at trying to persuade people that their hearing can be corrected by invisible devices and that they should hide their disability. Consequently there appears to be a small market and consumers find it difficult to access the source of supply and when they do they have little choice of products. The effectiveness of hearing aids is also limited due to the nature of the disability.

The visually and hearing impaired groups are numerically very large compared with other impairments and, therefore, market potential is large even within a country, but the relative size of the actual markets reflects the entirely different approach in the two cases.

While the optical and hearing aid fields offer a marked contrast in their approach to marketing they both are well publicised and are known to the general public. This is not, however, the case when it comes to knowledge about other aids and there is a great lack of knowledge amongst the general public about what is available and how to obtain it. Figure 7.1 illustrates the circular problem that faces both the disabled person and the manufacturer and has to be resolved for aids to get to the customer.

There has been no apparent move by industry to market those products that are of use to large numbers of people with minor disabilities through the major retail outlets. Consequently simple low cost devices that could be sold in large quantities have to be sold by low profile "specialist" suppliers. An example of this is that in many shops that sell telephones no publicity is given to the availability of induction couplers, amplifiers, extension bells etc. People who do not consider themselves disabled or handicapped but simply have a difficulty, have to make specific requests for these devices and can only do this if they have somehow gained knowledge of their existence.

Marketing strategies should, therefore, be implemented to correct this current problem which is relatively easily overcome by the right approach. This approach should be much more on the lines of selling domestic products, rather than "Prosthesis for disabled people".

A further aspect of the marketing strategy is to take a long term view. Because disabled and elderly people are widely distributed through the general population it takes a considerable time to create an awareness of the availability of products.

2.0 General and Special Needs

Due to the perceived difficulty of meeting the needs of disabled people there is a tendency for industry to say they cannot do anything and this is a problem for social services and voluntary organisations. However, what is not fully appreciated is that even people with all their faculties are sometimes in a position where they need additional help in using equipment, for example, when under stress or in poor environmental conditions. Manufacturers, therefore, should view the provision of facilities as a continuum which should aim to take the design of equipment for the general public as far as possible down a path to meet the needs of people with disabilities. An example of this is the telephone that has very large buttons designed as a feature for all to use but enabling people with poor sight to use the telephone easily.

By examining in detail the needs of the majority of people with disabilities and by taking their problems into consideration, it should be possible to provide telephones that are non specialist in design and used by everyone yet still meet the needs of disabled people or can be easily adapted if required.

However, it is not sufficient to make these devices available, the features have to be marketed to a large group of consumers who do not wish to be addressed as "disabled" but who know they have "a little difficulty" in undertaking certain functions. It is not unfair to say that people who have highly individualised needs will always have to be dealt with by specialist products and suppliers but in marketing terms they are the minority market.

It should also be appreciated that many people have more than one handicap and that often one of them is seen as a primary problem to the neglect of the other problems.

3.0 The Size and Value of the Market

Estimating the market size is made difficult due to problems associated with describing handicap, whether people have to register disabled and whether or not you are looking at the "handicapped" market or the market for people with "not too" special needs. An analysis of the demography and market by Sandhu and Wood (1990), provides a considerable insight into the potential size of the population and the market.

Across thirteen European countries there is a consistent figure of between 10 and 13 per cent of the population who have disabilities. These disabilities are broadly grouped in the report across five areas, i.e. lower limbs, upper limbs, visual, hearing and mental disabilities. The size of the disabled population in the thirteen countries is shown in Table 7.1.

Clearly the different disabilities have implications for different types of product but never the less show that significant markets exist on a European basis, particularly as it is then estimated that the potential expenditure on communication by disabled people in Europe is 5 144 812 000 ECUs.

Many countries have social service provisions that provide financial aid for specialist devices but it has been recognised that not all the ageing population are financially impoverished and that a large number have a significant disposable income which can be used to purchase devices that will improve their quality of life. For those who are not so fortunate varying degrees of state support are available, this support varying very considerably from country to country.

Market research in this area should clearly identify the size and potential for a particular range of products. However, the prognosis for market capture is very difficult to calculate mainly due to the problems of accessing the market set out below.

TABLE 1. Table 7.1: The size of the disabled population in thirteen European countries (after Sandhu and Wood, 1990)

Lower limbs 18.7

Hearing 8.7

Mental 7.4

Visual 6.5

Upper limbs 6.1

Verbal communication 3.6

TOTAL 51.0

4.0 Accessing the Market

The challenge for manufacturers and suppliers is that the market for products for people with special needs particularly of a minor nature is undeveloped and fragmented. To attack this market for the benefit of both consumers and manufacturers requires a policy decision to invest heavily in creating the market. Currently no major European Companies do this but given that a serious effort is made with sufficient investment, publicity and providing a source of a wide range of products, it should be possible to open up the market. This is, however, a long term investment which may deter many commercial companies.

If the market is seen solely as a highly specialised minority market then no large company is going to invest in it. However, if the market is seen as one that is providing a range of products with facilities that enhance the use of the equipment for all users then significant market opportunities may become apparent. This market will not develop if the advantages being offered on the new equipment are not well developed. In general there is little active marketing of products with facilities appropriate to the needs of elderly and disabled people and consequently the market does not develop. The investment in the market must therefore have a significant amount set aside for promoting the products on a wide scale to the general public as well as the specialist market. Devices are very often purchased because of the insistence of a carer rather than the disabled people themselves.

Finally, as the cost of production of devices in small quantities is so high, any marketing strategy should be based on ordering large enough quantities to keep the price down. Too many companies in this specialist area are under capitalised and order just sufficient stock to meet the orders in hand. Without a sufficient investment in stock and strong marketing the area is unlikely to develop.

A list of questions that have to be answered if the marketing is to be successful are set out in the Appendix.

5.0 Conclusion

Telephone companies are in a unique position to develop this market as they have direct access to large numbers of people and have both the financial and marketing power to make the market if they so choose. The result of this will be to extend the companies customer base significantly at the same time as bringing considerable benefit to a wide range of people.


Sandhu J.S. & Wood, T. (1990). Demography and market sector analysis of people with special needs in thirteen European countries: a report on telecommunication useability issues. Newcastle: Newcastle Polytechnic.

Appendix: A Marketing Check List

Who are the likely users of the products?

How do the products meet the needs of the consumer?

Are the needs of the disabled consumer the same as other consumers?

What is the purchasing power of the consumer or the provider of support?

Is the retail price likely to be affordable?

Is it necessary to provide a specialist fitting after care service?

Will the product sell through normal retail outlets and/or through specialist suppliers?

What is the cost of development and what volume of sales are required to keep the price right?

Is there sufficient capital to produce large enough quantities of products to achieve economic production?

What is the potential European and International market for the product?

What are the sales of competitors' devices?

What form of advertising is appropriate?

What agencies will help promote the products to specialist groups?

What subsidies or financial support exist to help consumers purchase equipment?

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