When a wheelchair is damaged in the cargo hold, and you didn’t see it happen, did it still break?
If you don’t know about or see something, does that mean it’s not there? It doesn’t, but it does make it easier to ignore. As humans, we resist processing information we don’t like, because we look for confirmation before poking around for contradictions.
I replay this thought every time people ask me why there isn’t already a convenient, national, widely available, transparent, cost-effective product to use when doing long-term financial planning for people with a disability and their loved ones.
Creating a product requires awareness of and visibility into a recognized market opportunity, and economics that support manufacturing and delivery. And for a very long time – as in, over millennia – humans have struggled just to see and be comfortable with people with disabilities, much less recognize them as a consumer market.
“The history of treatment and attitude toward people with disabilities has often been marked by societal fears, intolerance, ambivalence, prejudice, and ignorance regarding disability.” (Marini, 2017). Those feelings were at times expressed in truly horrible treatment of people with disabilities.
While the tolerance for horrible treatment has for the most part ended, sentiment lingers. In a study of the self-reported attitudes of more than 300,000 respondents, (Nosek et al., 2007) researchers found that “[p]reference for people without disabilities compared to people with disabilities was among the strongest implicit and explicit effects across the social group domains: 76% of the sample showed a pro-abled implicit preference, while 9% showed a pro-disabled preference.”
In my home state of Massachusetts, Medfield State Hospital (shown in 2013) was one of several long-term residential State psychiatric hospitals, and it was open as recently as 2003, fewer than twenty years ago.
The United Nation’s strategy for accelerating progress includes promulgating the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. The UN describes the Convention as “a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” One hundred sixty-four (out of 193) countries/regions have signed the Convention.
Despite a form of global commitment to do better, Scope, a UK disability research organization, currently reports that “[t]wo-thirds of Brits say they feel awkward around disabled people. Some people feel so awkward they avoid disabled people all together.”
Avoiding people with disabilities isn’t an option, though, even when it is anxiety producing. One billion people on the planet have a disability. In the US, federal data shows that somewhere between 13% and 25% of the population (roughly 50 to 100 million people) have a disability. What helps make the awkward go away, research shows, is looking, seeing, and interacting with people with disabilities.
When I looked, and considered my family’s experience with disabilities, and then added my professional expertise and experience to the mix, I understood that people with disabilities have unnecessarily limited access to financial planning tools designed for their specific needs. Limited access to tools and information have also helped create an opening for predatory practices. History tells us why. But it doesn’t require us to stay in this place.
Fixing this situation demands acknowledging where we are now, including the gaps and the awkward. And then, it requires immediately operationalizing solutions. Specifically, building and bringing to market cost effective, high quality financial tools for people with disabilities that give people agency over their finances.
This perspective looks forward to opportunity, rather than backward toward history. And it creates opportunity for companies like mine, who care deeply about both social impact – in our case specifically financial inclusion – as well as financial returns, to recognize and respect that people with disabilities and those who care for them are also a large consumer market with specific needs, preferences and buying power. Which is a long way from awkward.