Defining The Disability Economy (Part I)

Jennifer E. Engen

Throughout numerous articles, Mindset Matters has referred to the term Disability Economy to represent a larger vision of change within the disability experience across the digital landscape. Yet, this is not just an economic play, but a seismic shift within the intersectionality of business and culture that is redefining the very definition of disability itself and highlighting a new power dynamic that will reshape our perceptions in the years to come. However, before making that next leap forward, it is important to take a moment to offer a framework that articulates a more comprehensive understanding of the Disability Economy to have a greater awareness for a more effective engagement.

To understand the present and future of the Disability Economy, it is important to appreciate its past. We don’t have to look much further than the end of World War II when veterans were returning home from the theatre of war, many were newly disabled and dealing with the challenges of trying to navigate their surroundings. New companies were beginning to sprout up to meet the needs of these disabled veterans focusing on DMEs or durable medical equipment. These companies focused on numerous areas including wheelchairs, mobility devices including walkers, canes, crutches bath safety, and a whole host of daily living products. This was one of the first forays into actively engaging the disability community as direct consumers and exploring real needs in one’s daily life.

As time moved on toward a post-World War II era from the 1960s through the 1990s, there was a wave of political and social change happening that provided fertile ground for the birth of a global Disability Rights Movement exemplified by the saying “Nothing About Us, Without Us!” It was this change that had begun to give way to a new understanding of the disability community and the clarity of needs that has become the building blocks of the modern Disability Economy.

As the 20th Century turned into the 21st, the amplification of disability culture and the push for a more accessible world was not only part of the fabric of political discourse, but the key to this growing Disability Economy. Simultaneously, there was a push toward bridging the business case of disability as a central aspect of corporate practice allowing for an increased readiness for this new cultural shift. As these voices have grown louder peppered in with the need for businesses to embrace greater diversity, as well as the role of ESG investing we are seeing change beginning to take shape. There is a gradual recognition that the Disability Economy in its broadest terms makes sense and that in fact can be a value-add to not only daily business practice but to all of society.

This series will provide some context and a deeper dive into the significance and meaning of this growing Disability Economy while underscoring the fact that we have only scratched the surface of the value it can have across various business sectors. The Disability Economy is as much a story about smart business as it is about culture. Through this series, we will delve deeper into the very power of the Disability Economy as it ascribes new strategies for areas of growth for investors while rethinking the future of work, designing smart cities, to its role in areas from architecture, design, technology, and adaptive clothing to travel, and so much more.

We are at an inflection point where the growth of the Disability Economy must be seen as an imperative for business success in the 21st century. Not only is there the potential for new tributaries for economic growth, but a greater understanding that disability can be a way for senior management to refine the very mechanics of how to run their organizations. The Disability Economy presents a new template for business leaders to rethink how they engage in this very conversation and ultimately recognize that embracing this new mindset opens the possibility of what writer Malcolm Gladwell refers to as “Desirable Difficulties”. Gladwell illustrates that ‘Desirable Difficulties’ encompass hidden advantages you can access while being forced to overcome various obstacles. In his book David and Goliath: Understanding Misfits, And the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell uses learning disabilities as an example reiterating a recent study from the City University of London asserting that around a third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. It is this reimagination of the role of disability across the corporate ecosystem that will force all of us to see that disability is pivotal to our understanding of human variability and a foundation of innovation.

Each subsequent column in this series will take a more complete look at specific aspects of the Disability Economy to offer greater insights for businesses as a cultural driver and be a guide for organizations to best leverage this new growth opportunity.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathankaufman/2022/06/03/mindset-matters-defining-the-disability-economy-part-i/

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