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Selling to customers with disabilities

November 23, 2010
Five years ago, "Mary" ran marathons and zipped around in a sports car. Now, the effects of a neurological disorder leave Mary challenged to walk. She does not yet use a wheelchair, but Mary has harsh words for the automotive industry when it comes to helping disabled customers. "They know nothing," she scowled. "The dealership salesman led me all over the lot, never slowing down, showing me cars that weren't practical. I have trouble with my arms and legs sometimes, so I need something at the right level. "I can't climb into an SUV and I gave up my sports car on the day I couldn't climb out of it." By practical, Mary means cars that aren't low to the ground, offer easy access to the front and back seats, and have a roomy trunk to store her rolling walker. "He knew where to send me if I needed modifications," she concedes, "but I never asked for that." Modifications can make most cars accessible to people with disabilities, and they can be as simple as a slide board for easy transfer from a wheelchair, or as complex as hand controls installed on a steering wheel or a custom wheelchair lift that can cost almost as much as the vehicle itself. For those who need them, modifications are an important link to independence. "What I really needed was to be treated like any other customer, but with a little understanding," said Mary. So what can dealers do to improve the experience for their customers with disabilities? • Be kind. Have a number of chairs in the showroom, including chairs with arms and without. One customer might need the arms to raise himself if his back or legs are impaired; another might be uncomfortable in confining furniture. Low chairs often are inaccessible. • Make the parking lot accessible. Clearly marked handicap-accessible parking spaces with ample room for on-board lifts and ramps should be available and reserved for customers with special tags only. Be certain that curb-cuts are passable and are kept clear of ice and snow. Community agencies that serve the disabled can visit and advise about accessibility to the lot and showroom. • Greet customers in wheelchairs just like other potential buyers-with enthusiasm and respect. If asked, help them from a seated position. Being on the same level physically improves the negotiation process. • Pity is inappropriate and unwelcome, as are questions about the buyer's disability. If information is volunteered, do not respond with "I'm sorry." At that point, it is permissible to ask if the customer has any special needs for the new vehicle. • Don't use derogatory terms like handicapped, crippled, or confined to a wheelchair. Remember: the person is more important than the disability. Anyone attracted to a hot red SUV should be treated like an active prospect. Show off the engine, kick the tires, and sell the vehicle's features. • Recognize that not all disabilities are obvious. It's easy to tell when a customer is in a wheelchair or is accompanied by an assistance dog. But other disabilities often are hidden. A customer with heart disease may look fine but may need extra assistance. Bottom line: don't assume. "I'm a red-blooded American who loves to drive fast, just like you do," said "James," who was paralyzed below the waist in a college accident. "With the top down and my wheelchair folded in the trunk, I am 'normal' behind the wheel. "My car represents transportation and independence." Like many customers with disabilities, James took advantage of a manufacturer's special program that covered a portion of the cost of installing adaptive equipment in his vehicle. In the United States, Ford Mobility Motoring offers to physically disabled customers who are purchasing a new car up to $1,000 for modifications, and up to $200 for altering devices for the hearing impaired, lumbar seats, or running boards. Chrysler's Automobility and GM Mobility programs also offer up to $1,000 for modifications. And Toyota's Mobility Program offers assistance, including extended financing to customers with vehicles from 2001 to the current model year. "These programs," said Mary, "are a sign that the industry is taking our needs seriously. With a little more understanding at the showroom level, even the most disabled buyer will have a better experience and, ultimately, return to buy his next new car."