‘I want businesses to make money out of disabled people.” That would sound cynical and ruthless if it came from Gordon Gekko the fictional character of the 1987 film Wall Street, but it’s the view of former branch secretary of Oxfordshire Unison, Mark Fysh, who uses a wheelchair. You’ve heard of the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘pink pound’, well get ready for the ‘blue pound’.

“When people see someone who is disabled, it’s usually the ‘deserving poor’, or the ‘brave’ or the ‘bad backs and benefit scroungers’ and all are seen as a burden on society,” says Mark.

He is after a sea change in attitudes. “We don’t have to be hand wringing and guilt ridden about disabled people. On the contrary, I want to change the image of ‘burden’ into the possibility of a ‘market’. There are about 11 million disabled people with spending power of £80 billion pounds per year.

“This group, the blue pound people, will grow because the grey pound people will live longer and generally develop disabilities; so it’s an expanding market. But the people in this market aren’t seen as a market; they aren’t even seen as an economic class, a benefit to business, but as a ‘benefit drain’.”

Mark Fysh has first-hand experience.

“I’ll give you an example. When I was elected to the Trades Union Congress and the general council, I was appointed the lead officer on disability. I wanted to ‘look the part’. So my father gave me some money for a down payment on a hand-made suit. I walked, well I wheeled into one of the leading fashion houses in Oxford, and after the sales manager measured and fitted me, he asked how I was going to make the rest of the payment. I replied that I would pay it myself. The sales manager said “We don’t accept benefit payments.”

“The assumption was that I couldn’t possibly have any income because I was in a wheelchair. But I was a local government officer and I was on full time secondment to Unison Oxfordshire from 1996 to 2010 where I was the branch secretary. I was shocked. How could anyone think like tha?

“It made no sense to me to assume I would never work.”

I asked how many disabled people Oxfordshire County Council employed, and Mark replied “When I was working there it was around 0.2 per cent of the staff. Let’s face it, in the present financial climate of cuts, the public sector won’t necessarily be in the lead to employ disabled people, but private businesses would if they knew the size of the market.

“It’s a win-win game. Businesses who employ disabled people and have better facilities for disabled people gain a new market including their families and friends and the elderly with pushchairs.

“Take pubs for example, if they install a comfortable loo for disabled people, it can add a big customer base, like what happened at the Bear and Ragged Staff at Cumnor.”

Mark painted the picture of the spending power available to these blue pound people.

“Businesses don’t have a clue about their economic power. Look at just one area, transport. The ‘Motability Scheme’ is based on government grants for mobility allowance which varies from person to person but which can reasonably be expected to reach around £500 per month. They can spend that on a scooter, wheelchair or a car. By the way, the average mobility car purchase is £19,500.

“Many shops argue they cannot accommodate disabled people. OK, then why not allow disabled people to use their shop via the internet and give a discount to them? But no shops are doing that. Shopkeepers have no idea of the blue pound yet because they are not aware of the size of that £80 billion market.

Oxford Mail:

  • Nicola Blackwood, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, centre back, joined disabled people and their friends and family on a lap of the Iffley Road running track for the Parade for Equality, organised by Oxford Unlimited, to aise awareness of the need for equality for disabled people in 2012

“Maybe it’s time to stop wringing hands and stop reaching for a few pennies to throw into the begging tin and to start seeing this group as a serious business opportunity rather than a benefit burden.”

The bottom line is that each one of us could be disabled in a minute. So when people sit back and say this is all very well, but it doesn’t affect me, they are missing the point. It will affect them especially when they get older, so if things get better now it will be much better for them when they need help later.

As Mark put it, “Businesses, help yourself make money out of disabled people now and make life better for all of us later.”

Mark Fysh’s email is mark.fysh@aol.com.

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