09/17/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:54 EDT

Big business: How disabilities are transforming the marketplace

It’s not every day that Google comes calling. So when Steve Mahan got a chance to test drive the car of the not-so-distant future, the California man couldn’t get behind the wheel fast enough.

But he didn’t have to steer it or hit the brakes. The Google Car drives itself, and Mahan, who was actually more of a test rider, became an instant convert.

"I love technology. I see all those new things as open doors or opportunity and ability that I didn’t need before but I desperately need now."

That’s because Mahan is blind.

And that disability — along with the disabilities of millions of others — are transforming the marketplace as big-name companies look for ways to appeal to a vast potential customer base eager for products and services that work for them. (Watch Ioanna Roumeliotis's full report tonight on CBC's The National.)

The population of people with disabilities is the fastest-growing minority in the world when you include aging baby boomers. Globally, it’s about 1.3 billion people, a market roughly the size of China. Add their friends and family to the mix and the number doubles, to more than half the world’s population.

Rich Donovan, a former Wall Street whiz kid, crunched those numbers and saw gold.

Going after customers

Donovan has cerebral palsy. He’s combined his business smarts and his own disability to help companies go after customers just like him. He uses an index he created called Return on Disability that is now trading on the New York Stock Exchange to help track companies’ reach into a market that he says wants to be treated like everyone else.

Disability, Donovan says, “is part of a complex identity just like everybody else. So when you go home after a hard day of work, you are probably not going to turn on Disability Tonight. You’re going to turn on Entertainment Tonight.”

Disabled people, he says, “want the experience. They want the mainstream value that everybody else wants.”

In other words, he says, not special products for special people, just products everyone can use.

And big-name companies — like Duracell featuring a deaf pro-football player or Swiffer featuring a one-armed man using its duster — are doing just that.

This year alone, eight companies in North America released commercials targeting people who are disabled. The ads are highly produced and highly nuanced, designed to appeal to disabled people and everyone else.

Donovan says that’s never happened before. And it’s just a sign, he says, of more to come.

“The consumer message has to be developed. We have to figure out what makes them tick, what turns them on, what turns them off.”

Looking at the bottom line

In Canada, IBM and PepsiCo, as well as the big five banks are among the companies that have set their sights on that lucrative bottom line.

TD Bank actively recruits employees with disabilities who help it develop services like ATMs with headsets for customers with visual impairments. Sign language technology or ASL interpreters for deaf customers are also being piloted at some branches.

Paul Clark, executive lead for TD’s Persons with Disabilities Committee, says going after the disabled demographic is a no-brainer.

“It’s just good strategy to do this. In the end, you’re going to grow your business, you’re going to grow your market share and you’re going to end up in the leading place in the market.”

Google is certainly a leader on that front.

From self-driving vehicles to Google Glass eyewear that acts like a hands-free smartphone, the products are designed with disability in mind but have universal appeal.

At the sprawling Google campus in Mountainview, Calif., Eve Andersson heads up a new group of engineers whose sole mission is to make all Google products accessible.

She says Google is discovering what’s good for someone with a disability is good for everyone else, too.

“We all some have kind of impairment at some time. Maybe we're driving so we can't put our eyes on the screen or we're cooking and our hands are filthy and we don't want to touch our phone.

“So making things that work without relying on all of our senses and all of our capabilities at all times is really helpful for the population at large.”

On the horizon

Donovan believes the innovation to feed the market for people with disabilities will explode over the next five years.

“When we can get rid of those silly things we call pencils, even get rid of those silly things we call keyboards and start to think of ideas and interact that way, that’s where this gets really exciting.... And that’s on the horizon. That’s coming fast and it’s going to be driven by disability.”

Mahan is counting on that race to the future. He used to be a graphic artists until a rare eye disease robbed him of his sight 10 years ago. Now, when he’s not test riding the Google Car, he runs the Santa Clara Blind Centre in San Jose.

He is thrilled companies are finally recognizing what he calls an untapped market.

“We benefit from things that are novelties. I've always called my technology my toys but for me it's an absolute critical need and so I love to see people have capable toys because they become necessary tools for me.

“If there's a ramp that you can walk up, well, if I’m in a wheelchair I can roll up it. If you can ask your phone a question, so can I.”

Mahan says that kind of technology is nothing short of life-transforming.

“In a certain sense, it’s like getting well again.”

Google’s self-driving car isn’t on the market yet. But Mahan is sure it will be soon and he’s already in line to buy one

And in that, he’s exactly the kind of customer Google and other companies are banking on.

Watch Ioanna Roumeliotis's full report tonight on CBC's The National.