Worrying about negative perceptions of the term ‘disability’? Me too …

A friend of mine is several months into the post-launch phase of her start up company which has had some tremendous marketing and PR support, generated lots of interest but not the volume of orders she had hoped for at this point.

There are several potential reasons for this – not least among them the economy – but the most relevant to me, at the moment, has been the focus on the disabled element of her product offer and whether this has impacted negatively upon her brand image.

I have written about this before – and am sure I will again – but, for her, being marketed as ‘for the disabled’ seems to have narrowed her market potential considerably and then, as only a certain % of an entire market would possibly be interested in her business, not provided a large enough base of custom likely to sustain it in an ongoing way.  People have looked, commented favourably but not purchased and, when asked, have said, “I’m not disabled; it’s not for me.”

OK, start ups are always difficult to establish and there are the usual product and business development issues to address but her PR and the interest have been widespread so, I have to confess, the low level of conversion – interest to orders – has been a surprise to both of us because, on a numbers basis alone, her demographic population is both sizeable and increasing and there is a clear void in supply for good design and quality in adaptive fashion of any kind in the UK.

In discussing this, we agreed that we could debate the specifics of the product range but style/fashion taste is always so personal that no product will appeal to everyone; the reach of her PR and marketing was good; people seem to like the website and concept; all that was needed were enough people to like the product to make it a good business … and yet, so far, it is not apparent that there are.

Why would this be?  My own thoughts, definitely not conclusions, are:

  • that the terms of ‘disability’ plus ‘adaptive wear’ are loaded with too much negativity in the UK (and elsewhere as the UK is far from the worst in negative perception here) to be overcome in terms of establishing a market.  The – repeated often – phrase ‘it’s not for me” is so telling – people with disabilities do not want to buy from a ‘disabled’ site and no one else would even consider doing so;
  • that there is not a big enough disabled market yet to support a style and design focussed adaptive wear clothing range;
  • that ‘the disabled’ is too big a catch-all phrase to be thought of as one market – people within it cannot be defined by any such generic term because their needs are too simply too disparate;
  • that fashion/style is not a consideration (yet?) for the small proportion of severely disabled people who need adaptive wear.

It’s not that I don’t think there is a huge, and growing, market of women with ‘special’ or specific needs struggling to find what they need – all the stats show there is – but I worry that they dismiss a specialised ‘disability’ site as ‘not for them’ simply because most of the product currently available is so much more functionally than aesthetically aware.  Overcoming that perception is likely to be very hard.  I think it’s not impossible but a better idea might be to, somehow, incorporate it into the mainstream … though doing that without alienating the mainstream buyer would have to be the tricky bit.

I’d like to try supplying product to the huge numbers of us living with physical differences that are diverse but not abnormal.  This might be difficult to manage, given the points above, but it is a subject dear to my heart.  Within my +Black concept, I would hope to do this by normalising lifestyle change within the broader market of women aged 40-45 and above.  Promoting how aspects of well designed products will work for those with impairment/disability would be a key part of the broader product offer focussed on women undergoing any ‘life change’  – ageing, gaining weight, transitional career-ing, illness, impairment and so on.   We all know about these things and it should be more ‘normal’ to show the odd disabled and wheelchair user using product than not, shouldn’t it?  There should be no reason for the sight of a disability or wheelchair to alienate everyone who doesn’t fall within either label.  But is this like taxes or ordinary people?  You know, we want higher taxes to pay for public services but vote for the party who lowers taxes. or, saying we want real-life models but buying less when we get them and flocking to the product with the beautiful people on it.

Sheesh, thinking about this makes my head hurt …  I want +Black to be known as a site that any women, struggling to adapt her style with the crap life throws at you, would want to go to and find something that might help or, at least, get some ideas on how others have coped … but does the negative perception around the term ‘disability’ make it an ‘unmentionable’ in marketing terms for a wider demographic?

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