man in wheelchair
Mistakes to avoid in marketing to people with disabilities
by Lisa Wells

There is an obvious but awkward communication need within the home medical equipment (HME) industry, evidenced by ongoing marketing campaigns from providers and manufacturers who are sadly missing the mark in connecting with people who have disabilities. Your community looks to you as a health care provider for answers to their concerns. You calm their fears and alleviate their pain by giving them hope and helping preserve their quality of life. Now, more than ever before, your customers are looking for—and then at—your online resources for this type of assistance. The secret to growing your virtual health care audience is based on what you share, not what you sell, online. In other words, it’s not what you offer. It’s how you offer it, how you say it and how you depict it that allows you to establish credibility and deeper relationships within your target market. Your company’s efforts to connect with customers who have disabilities may be rooted in good intentions, but they will consistently fall short if your campaigns contain blatant mistakes or inappropriate wording and imagery. Don’t let a lack of attention derail your efforts. Fortunately, you can take steps to close this communication gap—but you must be intentional and consistent for the tone and effectiveness of your marketing programs to improve.

POP QUIZ: How well do you know disability imagery?

Show the images below to your marketing team or to the external agency responsible for creating your campaign materials. Ask them to tell you, without hesitation, which of these three readily available stock photos depicts an actual wheelchair user with a manual wheelchair.
test images
Do you smell a trap? Well, you should. None of these photos are authentic. They all show able-bodied models sitting in 60-pound transport wheelchairs. If your company uses similar photos in any campaign aimed toward manual chair users, you’re immediately broadcasting that you don’t understand your audience and their needs. A mistake like this could ruin your whole campaign, no matter how much it cost or how many people reviewed it internally before it went out the door. You’d be mortified if I told you how many times I’ve seen this reputation-crushing mistake made in the HME industry, not to mention how often I see inappropriate wording in HME news releases, brochures, social posts and advertising campaigns.

How to Communicate as a Disability Service Provider

None of us is perfect when it comes to the way we say things when we’re put on the spot. The good news is that educating yourself and making an intentional effort to understand your audience can help the people you hope to serve see your business in a better light. Begin by examining how you refer to your target audience within your business operations. Do you call them patients, consumers or customers? Most people with physical disabilities don’t want to be thought of as “patients” unless they are currently admitted to the hospital. If they are at home, they don’t want to be treated as a patient unless you’re their doctor. “Consumer” isn’t personal. “Customer” is. Survey your customer base to find out how your audience wants to be seen. (The only time I have ever seen an exception to this rule is with end-of-life-stage oxygen users.) Other wrongly-used phrases that should have been retired long ago permeate today’s HME messaging. In the 1950’s, for example, it was normal to refer to a person who uses a wheelchair as an “invalid.” You can pronounce that word two ways; neither will engender connection or acceptance (which, frankly, is the purpose of marketing). You’d have to be a fool to call anyone an “invalid” in this day and age, but variations of that offensive word still linger in the HME world. You might not notice this while knee-deep in the daily grind or working in an inward-focused corporate culture, but your customers do. They also bristle at the lifestyle misunderstanding conveyed by phrases such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” especially from an industry serving people who have physical challenges. Instead, use people-first language, which puts the individual ahead of their diagnosis, for your messaging. To learn more about people-first language and interacting with people with disabilities, download the free Disability Etiquette guide available on the United Spinal Association’s website.

Creating an Inclusive In-Person Sales Experience

Now that you have the look and language down, you’re ready to hit the road. For most HME providers, that means tradeshows and consumer events to generate sales leads within your community. If you’re investing the time and money to attend consumer events that serve people with disabilities, carefully evaluate your physical presence in these environments. What does your booth experience for your potential customers entail? Common shortfalls from HME exhibitors at events include: 1. Using a table as a wall between you and potential customers who roll past. If you sit like a bump on a log behind a table, don’t expect more sales activity than a log would receive. Competitors who don’t act like logs will outsell you all day long. 2. Displaying wares at bar height with tall stools for sales representatives to sit on. Take a minute to think about the subliminal message you’re sending to a wheelchair user when you force them to look up at you. You may also be causing physical discomfort and neck strain. 3. Laying out carpet for the benefit of booth staff without thinking about customers. Any manual wheelchair user will say that thick carpet is the bane of their existence. Carpet functions like quicksand as they push through it. I often jokingly attribute the entire market for wheelchair power-assist devices to the overwhelming presence of plush carpet in public buildings—and especially exhibit halls. Don’t make these rookie mistakes. Use your space and time to your advantage and invite people in to have a conversation with you instead of creating physical barriers. And it’s not just events. Many of these exhibitor tips can be implemented within HME retail storefronts, too. Your return on investment on consumer marketing will rise if you incorporate all of the relationship-building strategies above. But I hope increased margins are not why you would be willing to adopt these tactics. The entire industry will benefit—and customers will, too—if we all strive to better understand and embrace the community we serve. It’s not about selling, it’s about serving. That’s the true heart and power of HME.

Lisa Wells is vice-president of marketing for intermittent catheter manufacturer Cure Medical. She has authored four books for the disability and homecare industry. She mentors HME marketing professionals and teaches at health care and disability conferences nationwide. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email at