What consumers find intriguing and what they typically buy often differ. Nowhere does this statement
prove truer than in the disability-related marketplace, where product after product has been described
by consumers as “revolutionary,” only to never be purchased by them, ultimately causing the product to
fall by the waste side. Then, consumers with disabilities forget about that revolutionary product, and
are on to hyping the next “revolutionary” product, and the cycle goes on and on, leaving products and
inventors with failed products, propagated by what ultimately amounted to empty promises from consumers
with disabilities. How and why does this dynamic consistently occur within the disability-related marketplace?|
The Creation of False Prophets
You've likely seen the flash-in-the-pan cycle of disability-related
inventions at play if you've been aware of products intended to serve those with disabilities: An inventor
comes up with a product that's radically different than what's the norm for those with disabilities,
and he touts it as a liberating, life-changing device. Next, he shows it to the media, and they pick
up the story – not knowing anything about the disability-related marketplace, but wanting an inspirational
story – and then people begin patting the inventor on the back, bolstering his confidence. Of course,
at this point, consumers with disabilities begin telling the inventor what an amazing product it is,
and he's more sure than ever that he has a truly revolutionary product on his hands, to the point that
he mortgages his house, empties his 401K, and gets family members to invest in his concept in order to
apply for patents and ramp-up production. It's at this point that he places ads in disability-related
magazines, and pays big bucks for booth space a trade shows – and consumer frenzy is at an all-time high,
where there's nonstop praise for how awesome the product is, where those with disabilities all tell the
inventor, “I want one!”
But, alas, a blow is delivered to the inventor that he never, ever saw
coming: No one ultimately buys his product. And, to him it's inexplicable. After all, the media built
him up as a visionary, and consumers with disabilities all said that they wanted his product – so why
isn't anyone buying?
The answer is, because what consumers with disabilities find intriguing is
rarely what they actually buy – namely based on functional and financial constraints.
a Market That Never Was
Among the best examples of consumers with disabilities being intrigued by
a product that they will never buy is a wheelchair-accessible motorcycle. During my adulthood, I've seen
no less than five wheelchair-accessible motorcycle manufacturers come and go – and each one had all of
the media hype and consumer enthusiasm that an upstart business could hope for. Yet, when was the last
time you saw a wheelchair user buy and ride a wheelchair-accessible motorcycle?
The answer (beyond
media stories), is likely, never – that is, wheelchair users, as an overall demographic, don't buy motorcycles.
Sure, many of us may like the idea of riding a motorcycle, and we all certainly think that a wheelchair-accessible
motorcycle is awesome; however, the demographics of our community as a whole – our poverty rate, our
fluctuations in physical abilities, our struggles to get even the most pragmatic mobility like a wheelchair-accessible
van – prevent us from buying a $30,000 wheelchair-accessible motorcycle. The market for wheelchair-accessible
motorcycles has simply never proven to exist in the long-term to where it's large enough to support a
manufacturer (sure, each wheelchair-accessible motorcycle company has sold several units, but never enough
to stay in business).
And, it's in this area of market realities where we, as consumers with disabilities,
ethically fail inventors by bolstering false hope among them. For example, when we see a wheelchair-accessible
motorcycle at a show, we're quick to get very enthusiastic, telling the inventor that it's among the
coolest thing we've ever seen – and, in his mind, we're validating his belief that there's a market for
his product. However, we're truly doing him a disservice by only telling him part of the story. If we're
to be ethical in our assessment, we must ask ourselves, Am I literally going to buy this product? –
and, if the answer is, no, then we need to make that crystal clear to the inventor. Our feedback, then,
in such cases should be, That motorcycle is awesome, but I'm a quadriplegic with a wife and three kids,
living on SSDI, and there's no way that someone like me could ever use or afford something like that.
Such candid feedback is exactly what inventors need to hear because it gives them the most realistic
market dynamics possible, allowing them to make the most informed decisions toward whether to apply time
and money in further pursuing the project.
Consumer as Ultimate Advisor
Now, some might argue
that we should do nothing but encourage inventors of disability-related products, that even if we can't
use or afford a particular product, maybe someone else can – and we don't want to stifle innovation.
Again, however, when we assume such a feel-good approach, we're placing the inventor at risk of false
hope. As a consumer demographic, those of us with disabilities are strikingly similar, and unless you
are a remarkable exception, if one of us can't afford or use a product, neither can most others. A wheelchair-accessible
gym or off-road power wheelchair may be awesome products; however, if the gym costs $10,000, and the
off-road power wheelchair is so large that it won't fit in an accessible van or home, none of us will
buy them. Therefore, it's important not to assume that because a product misses your target, it might
serve others – it most often misses their target, too. Again, the true test should be, Are you personally
going to buy the product? – and, if not, then you have an ethical obligation to tell the inventor why
the product doesn't meet your and others' needs. We want inventors to create revolutionary products that
are highly usable and fundable for those of us with disabilities, and if we don't give realistic feedback
to inventors, we're really harming both the inventors and ourselves by steering innovations down the
I've been a watcher of the disability-related product marketplace my entire life,
and I've witnessed too many inventors be lured into thinking that a truly unsellable product will be
commercially profitable based solely on media hype and consumer accolades, not true market understanding.
Worst of all, I've seen companies lose millions of dollars, and individual inventors lose their life
savings, based solely on “positive” feedback from consumers with disabilities – that is, consumers with
disabilities who knew that the product wasn't one that they'd ever buy, but they encouraged the inventor,
anyway. The role as a consumer-advisor should be to the contrary, where you give genuine feedback to
inventors, ideally pointing them down the correct path – one toward a product that is truly needed, usable,
and fundable by consumers. And, in this way, inventors can often use such sage advice to rework their
impracticle but intriguing products into ones that are ultimately beneficial and obtainable – that is,
commercially viable products that improve our lives.
As a consumer with a disability, you
have an ethical obligation to assess inventors' products not only on their uniqueness, but also on the
merits of whether you can actually use and fund them. And, if you praise an inventor's product, with
no ability to use or fund it, you are feeding him false hope and misguiding innovation. Put simply, as
ethical consumers of disability-related products, we must not only think before we buy, but we must also
think before we advise. Support inventors of disability-related products by not aimlessly praising, but
by pragmatically guiding.
Published 7/2010, Copyright 2010, WheelchairJunkie.com