The Physically Disabled Consumer: Some Preliminary Findings and an Agenda For Future Research

ABSTRACT - While an increasing attention is currently given to various special groups of consumers in the marketing and consumer behavior literature, physically disabled consumers have received very little if any attention at all so far. This present paper is a first step in an attempt to correct this situation and, on the basis of a preliminary analysis of data collected through in-depth and group interviews with blind consumers, it is proposed that marketers, public policy makers and consumer behavior researchers can all benefit from further research on the special needs and the peculiarities of physically handicapped consumers. Research avenues in that direction are provided in the conclusion.


Richard Vezina, Alain d'Astous, and Sophie Deschamps (1995) ,"The Physically Disabled Consumer: Some Preliminary Findings and an Agenda For Future Research", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 277-281.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 277-281


Richard Vezina, University of Sherbrooke

Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke

Sophie Deschamps, University of Sherbrooke


While an increasing attention is currently given to various special groups of consumers in the marketing and consumer behavior literature, physically disabled consumers have received very little if any attention at all so far. This present paper is a first step in an attempt to correct this situation and, on the basis of a preliminary analysis of data collected through in-depth and group interviews with blind consumers, it is proposed that marketers, public policy makers and consumer behavior researchers can all benefit from further research on the special needs and the peculiarities of physically handicapped consumers. Research avenues in that direction are provided in the conclusion.

As the consumer behavior discipline expands and matures, there appears to be a tendency to move away from the study of "average" or "typical" consumers, and to pay increasingly attention to smaller, specific groups of consumers. An example of a proposal in that direction is Hirschman's (1985) (macro) analysis of the disparities in consumption resources based on differences in ethnicity, nationality and religion, three areas in which it is now possible to find numerous studies. Examples of other (but micro) analyses in the recent literature include homeless women (Hill 1991), people living with AIDS (Pavia, 1992), elderly people (Lambert 1979; Tepper 1994) and even, at a more specific level, elderly persons suffering from health problems such as high blood pressure (Pathak et al. 1991).

This last stream of research (i.e. on the elderly) does raise a set of interesting issues, one of the most important being the deficits attributable to age (John and Cole 1986). These deficits and their consequences in terms of consumption behavior bear both commercial and public policy implications. Largely spurred by then-ACR President Alan Andreasen (1991), there has been over the past few years a sort of mobilization around the study of various social issues related to consumption behavior(s).

The present paper intends to make another contribution to this movement by emphasizing the specificities and peculiarities of consumers suffering from physical handicaps or disabilities. This group of persons has received very little if any attention so far within the consumer behavior and marketing literatures.

We begin in the next section by providing some descriptors of physical disabilities, and some data on the number of people affected. Next, we provide some insights on the peculiar situation of one type of physically-handicapped consumers, namely blind persons, through an exploratory and preliminary analysis of the results of in-depth and group interviews. A basic model of the consumer decision process serves as the conceptual framework to structure this analysis. Finally, in conclusion, we highlight the epistemological as well as the managerial implications of a concerted research effort on this topic, and suggest some research avenues in that direction.


Data from various countries show that between 10 to 15% of the population suffer from some type of activity limitation resulting from a chronic condition (World Health Organization 1980; National Center for Health Statistics 1988). The proportion of disabled people increases significantly in the stratum of persons of 45 years old and more - which, given the current phenomenon of the aging of the population in the occidental world, allows the anticipation of some major social changes in the upcoming years.

It is important to point out at the outset that, although everybody suffers from many temporary disabilities during his or her lifetime (broken legs, illnesses, etc.), we are interested here in chronic and /or permanent disabilities. These, however, can take multiple forms, ranging from total impairment to partial handicap or dysfunctions. The World Health Organization's definition of a disability is "any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being" (WHO 1980, p. 143). The disability or handicap may result in a state of either total or partial dependency.

There is also another distinction that bears important consequences: is the handicap acquired or innate? People who become handicaped or disabled have presumably enjoyed their total capacity earlier in their lives and their mode of coping is presumably different from that of those who have never been able to, say, walk or hear. Moreover, the circumstances in which a person becomes handicapped does also bear important consequences: in the case of a delibitating disease, a person may have more time to adapt and learn to cope, while in the case of an accident or sudden impairment, the trauma may take longer to resorb.

Finally, another significant descriptor of the physically handicapped person's situation is the degree of stigma associated with the disability: some impairments bear more dramatic personal consequences (in terms of self-image and self esteem) as well as social consequences, than others.

All these descriptors of the physically handicapped person are presumed to affect, at least to a certain extent, the consumption behavior of those persons.


In this first attempt to grasp the peculiarities of the consumption situation and of the needs of physically disabled consumers, the basic consumer decision process offers the advantages of structure and simplicity. In its classical form, it is made of a series of steps which are: 1) recognition of the problem, 2) information search, 3) evaluation of the alternatives, 4) choice or decision, and 5) post-purchase processes (see, for instance, Engel, Blackwell and Miniard 1990).

It should be noticed that the consumer decision process served only for heuristic purposes, in order to structure the interviews with the physically disabled consumers. This data collection did not attempt to validate this sequence of steps. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the decision process is only one aspect of consumer behavior; therefore, the present study addresses mainly purchasing issues and not necessarily the whole range of consumption problems encountered by blind consumers.


First, it appeared appropriate to concentrate on only one group of persons living with a common handicap to ensure a certain research focus. It was decided, mainly for reasons of convenience, that blind persons would represent an interesting first group to meet and study. They represent an important group of physically disabled persons, with approximately 1.5% to 2% of the total population suffering of some significant level of visual impairment (Statistics Canada 1986). We focus here on persons who are either totally blind or "legally blind" (i.e. persons who can see but who do not pass certain standard visual tests even with corrected vision), and who, according to recent statistics, represent around 44% of the visually impaired (Statistics Canada 1986). They also make up a more homogeneous group of persons than other physically handicapped people such as motor-impaired persons, where there is more variation in terms of the level of limitations. Finally, it was relatively easy to recruit rapidly a certain number of participants through an existing local organization regrouping and serving blind persons.

A first group interview was conducted with four legally blind persons; following this interview, two other persons who could not show up at the previous group interview, were interviewed separately through in-depth interviews that lasted an average of 60 to 75 minutes. The same questions were asked in both settings, starting with a presentation of the objectives of the interview, followed by some general questions about consumption, shopping, and the triggering of consumption problems. Then the sources of information, the stores and places visited and the circumstances of these visits were probed, followed by an assessment of the information evaluation: which criteria are important? How do they evaluate these criteria, and the general quality of the products purchased? What is the importance of the brand name? Of price? The following theme was the decision itself (speed, circumstances, modes of payment, etc.) and, finally, the evaluation and all the other activities taking place after the purchase, especially the satisfaction process and level. In conclusion, general comments on other themes related to consumption were encouraged. The data collected through these interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed integrally for analysis.

The sample comprised four legally but not totally blind persons in the group interview, all suffering from their condition since birth: for two of them, the disability was a progressive one. The two respondents met in separate personal interviews were totally blind, one innate and the other being blind for the past five years due to diabetes.


The analysis and interpretation of the results will adopt the structure set by the consumer decision process, followed by a discussion of some more general patterns and issues that emerged from the interviews.

Problem Recognition

The most striking characteristic of this first stage of the decision process for blind consumers is the need to plan any shopping trip. Obviously, there is no room for spontaneous initiatives, even less for impulsive shopping journeys. Every shopping trip has to been planned in advance and obey to a rather strict schedule, since blind consumers often depend on others for transportation to the store.

Other than that, the participants were all eager to state that they had the same needs, wants and problems than everybody else. The numerous references to the "other consumers" suggest that conformity plays a very important role in blind consumers' needs system. One possible explanation could be that it may be already difficult enough to assume the difference imposed by the handicap without having to distinguish oneself by other eccentricities. This last point is, however, more the result of our interpretation than a hard fact or statement emitted by the participants themselves, and remains to be tested in a more rigourous manner, as it is the case for all other tentative conclusions in the present research.

Information Search

Blindness appears to be an important constraint at the information search stage. Although there have been significant advances in the development of technology aimed at facilitating "reading" for blind people, such as speech synthesis (see Drottz 1986), most visually impaired consumers rely on less expensive and easy-to-implement means to obtain information. One basic strategy consists in having someone, a friend, a member of the family or a volunteer, accompany the consumer during shopping. Though the study participants were reluctant to admit that accompaniers influence them during their decision process, it seems clear that a lot of information (color, price, fit, instructions, etc.) is filtered through these persons. Salespersons also represent an efficient means by which blind people collect product information. In general, the participants mentioned that they would rather rely on the accompanier since that person is well informed of their needs and preferences, but that they have to trust salespeople when shopping alone. With that respect, a more thorough analysis of the influence mechanisms used by salespersons dealing with blind customers is bound to reveal interesting and perhaps very different behaviors when compared with strategies and tactics used by the same salespersons with non blind consumers.

Loyalty to certain stores and brands is another strategy to reduce risk and to palliate the lack of visual information. Most participants said that they are loyal to specific stores because they are used to shopping there and that they are conveniently located. Restriction to brands that have proven satisfactory in the past is also common. As one of the participants put it: "Usually I choose a given brand and I don't change it if I like it". These results would lead us to think that the evoked sets of blind people may be smaller, and that curiosity - a determinant of brand switching among non blind consumers - is a negligible motive for them.

Product Evaluation and Choice

Consistent with the fact that information gathering is difficult, the participants mentioned that they usually restrict their evaluation and comparison process to a few alternatives. Decisions are often made rapidly since blind consumers know what to buy (in the words of one participant: "I'm not willing to try on ten pairs of jeans before buying one. I know from the outset what I want"), although the same could be true for a majority of non blind consumers.

When evaluating products and making choices, the attributes that they tend to use most frequently are quality and price. Price is however not perceived as an indicator of quality - at least with this subset of blind consumers -, but its importance seems to derive mainly from financial constraints.

With respect to the evaluation of quality, it is important to note that in many situations, products are evaluated through various senses. Thus food can be smelled or tasted to "see" if it is good; a CD can be listened to in order to judge its musical quality. Visually impaired consumers make use of alternative senses to infer quality. During the interviews, two different shirts were presented to the participants in order to simulate a real choice situation. Spontaneously, the participants started touching the different garments and making comments on the type of fabric ("It is not the same fabric for sure") or on some purchase consequences (e.g. need for pressing). The first question asked was usually the color, followed by questions on the fabric in order to validate their perception based on tactile exploration. Surprisingly (in light of our previous observations concerning loyalty), nobody asked for brand information. Finally, it should be mentioned that touching appears to be used for other types of products as well (e.g. fruits and vegetables).


Most purchases made by the blind consumer participants are paid with cash money, but other modes of payment (checks, credit cards) are used as well. In most cases, paying is easier when the person is accompanied. Blind consumers often have to trust the individuals who serve them when paying for products and services. One participant admitted going to the same convenience store for years and knowing the employees so well that he would allow them to enter his personal identification number when paying with his debit card (i.e. Automatic Teller Machine card). He said that he is more cautious with his credit card however.

Post-Purchase Processes

Although this issue was less developed in the course of the interviews, it appears that blind consumers may somehow have lower expectations with respect to the products and services they purchase, and therefore exhibit a rather good level of satisfaction. This is true even though blind consumers gather less information and make quicker decisions. In addition, they seem to be very grateful for the efforts made in the past few years by several firms and non-profit organizations to help and assist them in their consumption activities.


Two other issues not directly addressed through our interview structure but which emerged from a reconstruction of the data based on the whole set of interviews (the "iteration" operation in Spiggle's [1994] framework of analysis and interpretation of qualitative data), are the role played by the aesthetic function, in the case of blind consumers, and the role of pride, in, presumably, the case of all types of disabled consumers.

When reexamining the data collected, we were struck by the fact that aesthetics seems to play a very important role within the decision process of blind consumers. Although appearing paradoxical at first, it became clear after reflexion that it was bound to be important since it was something that blind consumers could not control and/or act upon. It sheds a different light from the current research on this concept in consumer behavior (see, for instance Holbrook 1986): it is not obvious, for one thing, that one would encounter among blind consumers the same level of "meaningful heterogeneity" described by Holbrook (1986). The "visualizing/verbalizing tendency" and the "intrinsic/extrinsic motivation" are two of the four variables studied by Holbrook which take a different meaning in the context of blind consumers. The social function of aesthetic judgment - perhaps a la Bourdieu - may be more relevant here in an attempt to understand the concept from the point of view of blind people.

A second issue that emerged from an iterative analysis of the data is that of dependency and pride. All the study participants insisted on the fact that they want to "be in charge" of their consumption process. They will listen to the suggestions made by accompaniers and salespeople, but they are the final deciders: "When I've got something in mind, I stick to it. If this is what I want, even though the person says that something else is better, it's my choice, not his". Because of their handicap, blind people are forced to rely on others for so many things (transportation, communication, etc.) that they may want to keep control of their consumption choices as much as they can. This is the reason why they mostly want to make their own shopping, even in the case of routinized purchases for which they could ask someone else to buy for them (e.g. the weekly grocery shopping). They seem to take pride in the fact that they do it themselves - which is probably not the case in most markets involving non blind consumers nowadays.

Another interesting and more global issue is the overall relationship that blind people have with consumption. In general, the participants exhibited a rather low interest in shopping and buying activities. Most of them said that too much emphasis was placed on the materialistic aspects of life. Although they admitted being materialistic to some extent, many would consider shopping, buying and consuming mainly as necessary rather than pleasurable activities. They go shopping because of specific needs. One participant was quite clear on this: "Let's say I don't particularly enjoy window shopping".


First, as it is the case with any study, an exploratory and preliminary research endeavour such as this one is bounded by several limitations, the most obvious one being that the results obtained can certainly not be generalized to consumers living with other types of handicaps or disabilities, and not even to the blind consumers total segment. Similarly, one could question the reliability of data obtained solely from group interviews, in which any physically disabled consumer might be tempted to either downplay or exaggerate the problems encountered in daily life.

Another limitation, which is also a warning to researchers who would like to investigate the consumption processes and habits of disabled consumers is that it is essential to try to disentangle the effect of the handicap from the effect of other variables such as the consumer's personality or financial situation. In another data collection among paraplegic consumers - not reported here -, three out of four paraplegic consumers were on Social Welfare mostly because their physical condition did not allow them to work. Therefore, many of their behaviors were directly imputable to this difficult financial situation, and only indirectly to their physical handicap. The same can be said about personality: physically disabled consumers, like other consumers, have their own distinct personality which may affect their consumption behaviors. The difficulty arises when one tries to distinguish between the effects of personality, the effects of the coping strategies used by physically disabled consumers to deal with their impairment(s), and the effects of the physical handicap itself.

Future research in this area is important for at least three reasons: first, in terms of marketing strategy, physically disabled consumers may represent lucrative segments for some firms willing to create or adapt products, services and strategies to reach this market. Even if segmentation turns out to be non profitable, slight improvements of products and services currently manufactured and sold could provide significant benefits to the physically disabled consumers. Chrysler's "Physically-Challenged Assistance Program", or Citibank's toll-free number for hearing-impaired customers, are examples of such programs.

In addition, some firms are currently referring to these adaptations and improvements or consumers, to the benefit of their own commercial image: in Canada, for instance, the largest bank is currently showing advertising messages in which a blind person enjoys special attention adapted to her situation. In doing so, this bank is following the recommendations of observers and analysts of the marketing environment who state that "advertising that portrays people with disabilities has improved the images of the companies that use them" (Waldrop 1990, p. 33). Companies such as Nike, McDonald, Levi, IBM, Zeller's and Nissan have used disabled actors in some of their advertising messages. They certainly are better advised than this other Canadian bank which current slogan is "Helping our Customers Achieve their Visions".

A second reason to pursue research in this area relates to the public policy implications behind such an endeavour: knowledge of the several deficiencies imputable to the various types of physical handicaps could serve as inputs to correct situations for which the existing economic forces at work in markets do not provide solutions in a natural and spontaneous way.

A third reason to pursue research on physically disabled consumers is epistemological. As everybody knows, it is when one is temporarily disabled that he or she realizes the importance of, say, a leg, when it is in cast, or health in general, when sick. Aside from the empathy that these situations should trigger toward disabled persons, it can also help us understand the functions and utility (the consequences of its use) of some bodyparts. Similarly, in cognitive psychology, many findings have been made through the study of amnesia patients (for instance, Graf, Mandler and Haden 1982) or children with learning disabilities (Fincham and Barling 1978, for instance). We argue that we could learn on some natural functions by looking at the behavior of those for whom these functions are impaired (e.g. the importance of sight, by studying blind people).

Among the most interesting research avenues to adopt in the upcoming years, we would like to suggest the following:

- On blindness: seeing is a very important part of the act of consuming (dress, art objects, etc.). What does consumption "mean" for visually-impaired individuals? Can we think of materialism in the context of blindness, since the possession of objects seems to be so much intertwined with the ability to look at them and enjoy their presence? How do company and brand images form in the mind of blind consumers?

In fact, the whole issue of materialism could benefit from further investigation among physically handicapped consumers since it is a well-known fact that having to face such handicaps often results in a more spiritualistic view of life and a less materialistic one (Carroll 1961).

-The importance of self-perception, for physically handicapped consumers in general - not only blind persons: one result emerging from the present data collection is that the objective handicap is not the sole - and perhaps not the most important - determinant of the state of dependency. The subjective perception of one own's handicap seems to play a major role. There are persons with major objective handicaps who appear to be better adapted than other persons with less debilitating handicap but who perceive themselves as immensely handicapped.

Also, the satisfaction/dissatisfaction issues have not been fully addressed in the present research. It could be interesting to start by measuring overall levels of satisfaction for consumers with physical impairments, and to compare these measures with other consumers. A high level of dissatisfaction would command public policy actions. A high level of satisfaction, on the other hand, would raise interesting questions concerning the determinants of satisfaction since it can be assumed that the marketplace is not designed to meet the needs of the disabled consumers; how would we explain that they are as satisfied or more satisfied than other consumers?

All these research questions should be addressed using a variety of methodologies: surveys, field research, observations and experimentations could all adequately complete the exploratory methodology followed in the present research project.

In a recent article in American Demographics, Judith Waldrop wrote: "For decades, people with disabilities have been fighting for equal access to schools, jobs, and the marketplace" (Waldrop 1990, p. 33). We believe it is our responsibility as consumer behavior researchers to pay attention to the peculiarities of the consumption situation that these consumers face in order to support their fight for integration.


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Richard Vezina, University of Sherbrooke
Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke
Sophie Deschamps, University of Sherbrooke


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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