‘Running’ a Business in an Inaccessible Environment

Having run my own business and marketing consulting firm for decades, I knew when I started my accessibility firm, that there would be challenges. I expected, and have encountered, many of the expected challenges: raising capital, keeping up with technology, employee and human resource issues, time-management, the usual challenges for start-up businesses.

I knew that as a fledgling industry, I would have extra work to do educating potential clients about need. I knew I would have to overcome price objectives and the negativity surrounding ‘legislated compliance’. Businesses aren’t fond of spending money, especially when the government makes them, regardless of the purpose. They must first be educated about the huge return on investment that accessibility provides. The benefits accessibility has for all of their customers. Accessibility increases corporate perception, customer loyalty and sales, and unlike the mis-perceptions about cost that abound, do not have to cost a lot. And again, the return on investment is huge. I was just tweeting this evening with a gentleman about the many benefits of simply having a few chairs available for customers. Sit, stay, spend. For a multitude of reasons and for the benefit of many, particularly the bottom-line. There are numerous small things that can be done to remove barriers and increase accessibility, and they don’t have to cost very much. To paraphrase: If you build a ramp, they will come.

What I was not expecting was how many barriers to access would exist for my business and how affected it would be by inaccessibility.

I tried, for example, to join the local Chamber of Commerce, but couldn’t as I would have been completely unable to gain entry had I been using my wheelchair. Fortunately, I was able to use my cane to avoid a meeting in the parking lot where it was snowing quite hard at the time. But still, I cannot, as an accessibility firm, support a Chamber that is entirely inaccessible.

I have gone to an untold amount of business meetings where using my wheelchair would have been quite impossible in terms of accessibility. The latest came during a round of pre-event meetings for a local event I was to be speaking at. Despite my topic being about wheelchairs, I arrived with my walker to find the meetings being held on the second-floor of a Victorian-home converted to offices. Again, I am fortunate that I was able to return to my car and grab an alternate assistive device, my cane. I have to mention that the organizers were more than accommodating, offering to move the meeting to the main floor, etc. But that would have been way too much of an effort as everything was set up in the upstairs boardroom already, and I have already caused too much additional unwanted attention at this point.

Ironically, the event venue itself attempted to be accommodating providing a ramp for my sole-use, but this ramp proved completely inaccessible, even the cameraman had difficulty WALKING up the steep slope. Again, I resorted to using the cane I now keep attached to my wheelchair for such frequent occurances. I am fortunate that I have other options. I cannot image the added difficulties not having my additional assistive device options would pose for me and my business. Again, I note that both the organizers and the event tried to be accommodating and I am grateful for any accommodations, I just prefer accessibility and independence.

I encountered similar problems with every attempt to attend networking meetings. They were either entirely inaccessible (I myself have had difficulty finding accessible venues at which to host my own events), or I encountered what I call the ‘red-sea syndrome’ that occurs at most events, and makes networking in a wheelchair quite difficult. Many people are quite hesitant to approach someone sitting in a wheelchair, so I will usually be the one to approach others and introduce myself. I have found that approaching a small group of individuals and casually inserting myself into the group, and then conversation, quite impossible. Inevitably, someone will notice my chair approaching and a polite, ‘parting of the seas’ will occur as everyone re-adjusts to allow me to pass. This is nice of them. Unfortunately, at this point I find it quite difficult to casually insert myself into the conversation and will sheepishly, roll-on past, thanking them as I do. It may not be the chair, it could be me, but it’s easier on my self-esteem to blame the chair.

What does seem to work is finding another individual standing alone and approaching them with something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m Donna, I don’t like sitting alone at these events so thought I would come over and introduce myself”. Individual approaches seem to work better for networking, though can occasionally strike fear in the eyes of those being approached when they realized I have signaled them out. I don’t think this is a reaction to my disability in any way, but an innate, networking event reaction for most.

I have a feeling too, that many potential customers are hesitant to approach us for fear that they are not currently accessible. They are unaware of the many mobility options available to me. Plus, they are calling inquiring about accessibility, this positive fact outweighs the obvious fact that if they are looking to increase accessibility, they may not currently be so. But I am hesitant to ever play the D-card as an excuse for my business, and honestly, there are many other reasons that a potential customer might not call.

I am not sure why I was so surprised by that inaccessibility affected my business, inaccessibility affects my daily life, and I suppose, for us especially, success lies in literally being able to get our foot in the door.