Consumer Choice of the Developmentally Disabled

ABSTRACT - In 1987 the Developmental Disability Bill of Rights and Assistance Act was passed. This doctrine mandates that, as part of social policy, the developmentally disabled have the right of choice and independence. Yet in order to facilitate independence through choice, there must be an understanding of how these individuals make choices. This research provides a preliminary examination of the developmentally disabled consumer choice behavior. Further research recommendations are made.


Amy Rummel, Myra Batista, and Daneen Schwartz (1996) ,"Consumer Choice of the Developmentally Disabled", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 424-428.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 424-428


Amy Rummel, Alfred University

Myra Batista, Alfred University

Daneen Schwartz, Alfred University


In 1987 the Developmental Disability Bill of Rights and Assistance Act was passed. This doctrine mandates that, as part of social policy, the developmentally disabled have the right of choice and independence. Yet in order to facilitate independence through choice, there must be an understanding of how these individuals make choices. This research provides a preliminary examination of the developmentally disabled consumer choice behavior. Further research recommendations are made.


In 1987 the Developmental Disability Bill of Rights and Assistance Act Amendment was passed. As this amendment states, it's mission is to " persons with developmental disabilities to achieve their maximum potential through increased independence, productivity and integration into the is in the national interest to offer persons with developmental disabilities the opportunity, to the maximum extent feasible, to make decisions for themselves and to live in typical homes and communities where they can exercise their full right and responsibilities as citizens" (p. 101 STAT.841).

A critical component to insuring independence for this particular population is their ability to perform autonomous consumer related activities (Conroy & Feinstein, 1988a & b).

The developmentally disabled, by definition, are a population with limited cognitive skills. To date researchers have little information concerning how this population makes consumer related decisions. In reality, many choices of the developmentally disabled have been determined by their care givers such as parents, family member, legal guardian or case worker. Hence, one of the basic benefits of the 1987 Amendment, the ability to make independent choices, has been given to the client's social support system and not to the client. The doctrine of the "maximum extent feasible' has thus taken on a narrow scope of limited participation of the developmentally disabled in their goals and activities. This research is one of the first attempts made to examine how the developmental disabled make consumer related decisions.

Given the exploratory nature of this research, there must be a basic understanding of the three central components: 1) the developmentally disabled, 2) social policy directed at the developmentally disabled, and 3) the role of consumer behavior. Each component will be addressed in part to provide a basis for this line of research.

Mental Retardation Defined

The developmentally disabled is a population which is as heterogeneous as any "normal" population. With this in mind, it is not surprising that to define this population has been difficult and today is still controversial. Yet, some semblance of a definition is needed in order to understand the direction of this research.

A definition used by NARC (National Association of Retarded Citizens) which was borrowed from the American Association of Mental Deficiency, is that "...the mentally retarded person is one who, from childhood, experiences unusual difficulty in learning and is relatively ineffective in applying whatever s/he has learned to the problems of ordinary living" (Schleien & Ray, 1988).

For educational purposes the developmentally disabled were categorized according to IQ level. This was and still is done to some degree to be able to provide the most appropriate type of education or skill training. Three main categories were applied: (1) the educatable mentally retarded (EMR), individuals with the IQ range of 50-75; (2) the trainable mentally retarded (TMR), who obtained IQ scores from 30-50; and, (3) the severely or dependent mentally retarded, who scored below 30 on the IQ test. These categories eventually identified the type of education a particular individual received ranging from self-help skills (dressing oneself) to learning how to count money etc. This paradigm, found in the educational system, was also utilized in this research.

Educable mentally handicapped (mildly retarded) are usually first identified in the classroom because they are not able to keep up with the other students. Once identified as having an IQ score between 50-75 they are so labeled. They are able to learn the basics of reading, writing, math, etc., but it is not instructed at the normal pace or in as much depth. EMRs are seen as "slow learners" and not necessarily different learners (e.g. learning disabled).

The trainable mentally retarded (moderately retarded) have lower IQ scores (25-50 range) and, hence, their instruction is focused on daily living skills. These might be termed self-help, or social adjustment. The goal is to teach skills which will allow them to function within some type of supervised setting.

The severely mentally handicapped have been institutionalized until recently. Because of their severe intellectual limitations, instruction has been designed towards acquisition of very basic skills. This type of individual usually has a limited verbal capacity. Teaching these individuals alternative methods of communication is critical.

The history involved in educating or merely understanding this population has been long and varied. However, if this population is to be understood from a consumer perspective, a review of the literature regarding efforts towards teaching this population consumer related skills is necessary.

Formation of Social Policy (for the developmentally disabled)

Formal policies which began at defining the relationship between the developmentally disabled and society began around the 1820's. It came in the form ofthe segregation of this population with the establishment of separate institutions: insane asylums, orphanages, and asylums for the "feeble minded." In 1848 Massachusetts opened the first institution for the mentally retarded. By 1890, fourteen states had followed suit (Davies, 1959, p. 22). As these facilities grew in number the concern became not on training or socialization, but "a conscious attempt to protect society by removing them altogether" (Knoblock, 1987, p. 11). This philosophy soon developed into what is now called "The Eugenics Movement." This movement felt strongly that the mentally handicapped were especially responsible for the spread of moral and social degeneration of society. Such feelings were supported by research of that time (Dugdale, 1910).

While this movement eventually lost its momentum, it played a major role in the formation of social policy today. Still, by 1958, twenty-eight states had sterilization laws for the mentally handicapped (Davies, 1959). However, by 1950, parents began to advocate for the rights of their handicapped children. The National Association for Retarded Citizens was formed at that time and became a platform for advocating quality services. In the 1960's, due, in part, to the efforts of President Kennedy and his family, public attention was focused on the plight of the developmentally disabled. Concurrently, a report published by the Children's Defense Fund estimated that over two million developmentally disabled children were denied access to public education at that time. While there were many public policy advances made during this time of civil rights it was not until 1987 that the Developmental Disability Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (PL 100-146) was passed.

Extant Literature of the Developmentally Disabled Consumer

To date, there has been limited research which examines the adoption of the consumer role by the developmental disabled person. Much of the extant research has focused on such topics as transfer learning (Bachor, 1988; Feuerstein, Rand & Hoffman, 1979), mainstreaming (Myles & Simpson, 1989; Bilken, 1985; Reynolds, Wang & Walberg, 1987), and adaption to independent living (Dattilo & Peters, 1991; Richler, 1984; Schleien & Ray, 1988). There has been some work which looks at the behavior of these individuals in consumer settings (Ferguson & McDonnell, 1991; Westling, Floyd & Carr, 1990; McDonnel, Horner & Williams, 1984). An underlying theme in much of the literature is the concept of adaptive behavior. From this perspective, adaptive behavior is defined in terms of those skills needed to function in society (Macmillan, 1982). Hence, teaching basic skills is viewed as empowering these individuals to obtain access to necessary resources held by the "non-handicapped". This focus on teaching has developed because, by definition, developmentally disabled individuals do not acquire "normal" social skills through the socialization process. The literature indicates that the majority of this particular population does not possess the cognitive ability to decipher and utilize social cues and adopt them into their cognitive or behavioral repertoire. Failure to integrate such cues is then compounded when and if these disabled individuals are excluded from normal family activities in their formative years. Sowers (1982) reported that in fact very few severely handicapped engage in leisure and community activities with their families. A reaction to this situation has been a focus on training behaviors in various structured settings to provide access to societal offerings.

The underpinnings of this extant research is that "training" a behavior or skill such as shopping or buying a cup of coffee may not be enough to enable these individuals to become consumers. To enable this population consumer choice there must be an understanding of how they make choices and how this is related to their ability to adopt the role of consumer.

The purpose of this research is to begin to build an understanding of how and why the developmentally disabled make consumption choices.



Two sites, one in Washington, D.C., and another in up-state New York agreed to participate in this study. Thirty-four mentally handicapped were personally interviewed. They ranged in age from 21 to 63 years, with an average age of 33 years. Due to the purpose of the study and the demands of the task, ability to provide verbal responses was the only criteria used for inclusion in this study. Fifteen male and nineteen females were interviewed and of these, 17 were classified as mildly handicapped, 11 were moderately handicapped, and 6 clients were severely developmentally disabled. There was a smaller representation of the severely handicapped due in part to this study's requirement of verbal responses.

Analytic Procedure

Personal interviews were conducted in order to determine those particular cues used in the selection process (such as reference to the self). Hence, the actual selection of the product was not of central importance.


Each client was solicited to participate in the personal interview. They were told that they were going to be asked about grocery store shopping. Great efforts were taken to assure each client that this was not a test situation. Subjects were brought to the staff lunch room in their work facility. They were then asked their name and basic information about their shopping experiences (i.e., do you go grocery shopping?, With who?). Subjects were then shown 3 to 4 actual products with a particular product category. Physical products were presented because such methodology was found to increase reliability of the responses (Wadsworth & Harper, 1991). They were exposed to a total of 6 product categories. They were: drinks, fruit snacks, bath soap, dish soap, toothpaste and cereal. The purpose of this study was to examine product choice as it might occur in a naturalistic setting. Hence, product categories were selected which these clients might have responsibility for the choice (e.g. packing their lunch for the sheltered workshop), as well as being involved in the product's consumption. A total of 204 response categories were recorded (34 clients x 6 product categories=204). Before the interview began, subjects were asked to verify that they knew what the product category was, and what it was used for. Of the 204 response categories, only in 25 instances did the clients not know the product category. This was due to unfamiliar packaging. This was clarified with all clients before any further questions were asked. During each interview, clients were asked to choose a particular product within each category that they would like to purchase if they were at a store. For each choice, they were asked to explain why they chose that particular one and not the others. All comments were manually recorded. Each interview took anywhere from fifteen minutes to one hour. The client's supervisor provided the level of developmental disability for each client.


Reflective of previous findings, none of the severely handicapped indicated they had been shopping before. Table 1 provides the breakdown.

Table 2 provides a classification of choice. All respondents were asked to explain why they chose the particular product. All reasons were recorded and, hence, there were more reasons given than the actual number of respondents. Examining the pure total of responses, those mildly retarded (EMR) provided a high number of responses than either TMRs or the severely retarded individuals (p<.05).

Examining the content of responses, EMR individuals identify the products' effectiveness more often than the other two populations (30% vs. 12% vs. 10%). This classification, "effectiveness," captured responses such as "best at cleaning dishes," "gets me the cleanest." The number of responses based on sensory information (e.g. color, taste, smell) was highest among the moderate and severely disabled clients compared to the mildly handicapped [49% (TMR) vs. 46% (severely) vs. 35% (EMR).

Another issue that arose which was of interest was the degree of reliance these individuals had on past purchases. Thirty-four percent (34%) of the responses provided by the severely handicapped were "used before" either by self or significant other (e.g. sister, houseparent). This is notable considering only 19% of responses from the moderately handicapped and 10% of the EMR or mildly handicapped individuals relied on this information for product choice.




Severely Developmentally Disabled

There were notable differences between the three populations. The severely handicapped were more likely to give the same response within and across product categories. For instance, one of the clients, "A," chose Michael Jordan fruit snacks in that product category. When asked why, he responded, "I know him." When asked which fruit snack had the prettiest package or which was healthiest, he again responded Michael Jordan. This perseveration was very typical of respondents who were severely mentally handicapped. When the drink category was placed in front of him, he was very quick to pick out Gatorade and said that he had seen it on T.V. It is highly likely that similar T.V. exposure to Michael Jordan was the basis for the fruit snack choice. The only other basis for choice that was supplied by this client was that it was bought previously by his mother. This was also very typical of the responses provided by this developmentally disabled group.

It is interesting to note that there was little response latency for this group. While no actual timing was recorded, these interviews took less time than did the interviews with the mildly or moderately disabled clients, contrary to what was expected by the researcher. One possible explanation for this is that there were few cues being accessed for choice which decreased response time.

It should also be noted that this particular group of respondents had the most difficult time with providing a rationale for "prettiest package" or "healthiest/most effective product." Often they didn't provide an answer, or repeated a past response.

Moderately Developmentally Disabled

The responses from the moderately disabled clients were more comprehensive compared to the severely developmentally disabled (i.e. more responses and explanation). However, many times the reasons provided for product choice seemed to be based on information obtained from commercials or what were identified from the product box/container. "G" chose Dentalcare for his toothpaste. When asked why, he responded, "Because it's advertised a lot. It has Arm & Hammer in it and that's good." It appeared that often times such choices were not made on these individuals' own thoughts or decision, but on T.V. messages. Through many of these interviews it became very clear that these individuals remember T.V. commercials well and believe advertisements to be absolutely true (no evaluation of commercials). Reason for choice, then, seemed to be a replay of these commercials. For instance, "G" had heard of Arm & Hammer, but was not aware of what it was. He had actually mistaken a brand name for an ingredient, but knew it was good based on the T.V. ad.

Similar to the severely disabled, there was also a limited use of the word "I" in these interviews. The typical response from these moderately developmentally disabled clients was "because it's advertised a lot" or "it has 100% fruit juice." There were few responses such as "I like it." Similar to the severely developmentally disabled, there was little if any reference to the "self" in these product choices.

Mildly Developmentally Disabled

This population was the most verbal. They were able to provide in-depth reasons for their product choices with little probing. "B" for instance, reported she did most of her own shopping.

Some of the more interesting comments provided were the ones concerning children. "B" was asked to choose the prettiest toothpaste package. After choosing "Slimer," she report that "children would think that Slimer is cool." This response was one of the first to make a distinction between her self and others. Responses such as this identified that she was interpreting the cues provided by the Slimer label and associating them with an appropriate market, i.e. children. Similarly, "D" did not want to choose Lucky Charms cereal because "it's a kid's cereal," and reported "I'm too old for that."

Many of the reasons given for product choice were based on objective criterion such as price (e.g., "It's cheaper in the store") or product packaging (e.g., "the toothpaste pump is much easier to use"). Both of these types of comments indicated that product evaluation had, in fact, taken place.


Based on both the quantitative and qualitative results a number of theoretical issues emerge.

Consumption Symbolism

Consumption symbolism has been a long-established tenet of consumer behavior. Even young children are able to decipher consumption symbols and interpret them (Belk, Bahn & Mayer, 1982). However, there appears to be little symbolic meaning of products for the moderate and severe disabled. This was reinforced in the actual interviews when some of the mildly handicapped individuals would reference to "how the product would be perceived: 'that product is for children.'" The question raised is why is there a lack of this interpretation? Is it simply a matter of intelligence or is it a lack of experience?

Cue Utilization

There is a range of difference between the type and amount of product cues utilized among this population. As the quantitative data shows the mildly handicapped individuals access and verbalize more cues and a wider range of cues. A higher proportion of their cues are "rational" such as ingredients and effectiveness. There was evidence in their qualitative responses that they were evaluating their needs and matching these with the product choice. This might be a reflection of their independence. A higher proportion of these individuals reported that they were responsible for their product choice relative to a significant other making those choices for them.



For both the severely and moderately handicapped, product choice often laid in the hands of the significant other. It is possible that this lead to fewer number of cues utilized and a higher reliance on sensory information or information gleaned from advertising. In terms of central vs. peripheral cue utilization, there is a higher incidence of central cues being used by the higher functioning (mildly retarded) than the other two groups. This was reflected in both the types of data obtained.


There are many issues raised from this research. Firstly, the developmentally disabled are not one homogeneous population. They differ substantially on how and why they make the consumer choices that they do.

Secondly, this research identifies that the three populations use different cues for the basis of choice. The mildly handicapped, especially, can identify products with some accuracy according to their market positioning (e.g. healthiest product). They use market information such as commercials to form these opinions. The moderately handicapped show less ability to evaluate commercials and therefore believe such information as truth. This is a similar result found in research done with young children.

Behavior of consumers, to a large degree, is directed by symbolic meaning. In other words, products are consumed because they say something about our "self." Most individuals learn the meaning of consumption through the socialization process. That includes interaction with families, friends and the market place. Results from this study show that these individuals have limited exposure to the market place and/or little personal experience. Does personal experience affect their ability to utilize product cue and to consume symbolically. Certainly, the ability to interpret cue "accurately" is an important issue as these individuals work towards mainstreaming in our society.

Support organizations such as shelter workshops, schools, job training facilities and group homes now have the responsibility for creating choice for this population. There needs to be an understanding of the choices which exist in a client's repertoire and his or her ability to choose. (i.e. Do they understand the outcome of their choices?)

This research represents one of the first efforts to examine the developmentally disabled from a consumer perspective. The findings and their interpretation are limited because of the sample size of respondents and the qualitative nature of the study. More research needs to be done to understand this segment of our population.


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Amy Rummel, Alfred University
Myra Batista, Alfred University
Daneen Schwartz, Alfred University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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