When I first met Colleen she presented as a highly confident, well-put together, strong female who happened to be in a wheelchair due to a serious motor vehicle accident 15 years prior. Since her accident she had worked as a consultant to help our city become more accessible. She was often heard to say: “Until you live in a wheelchair you don’t know what accessibility really means.”
What accessibility means to Colleen, and what it should mean to all of us, is that if an individual wants to go somewhere or do something, they should have access to that place or thing. How successful they are once they take their seat at that table will vary from person to person, but the seat should be accessible to them regardless. It was disheartening to learn about all the places that Colleen could not attend in the early 90s – restaurants, theatres, or even a five-kilometre walk around her own neighbourhood. None of this were easy and much of it was impossible.
Dr. Cynthia Bruce is a researcher focused on equity issues in inclusive education in both public and post-secondary settings. Her passion intrigued me to learn more about the term ‘equity’ and how it differentiates from ‘equality.’ Here is what I learned:
Equity and equality are two strategies used in an effort to produce fairness.
Equality is treating everyone the same.
Equity is providing everyone what they need to be successful.
A small, social purpose, service-based business has a unique vantage point from which to excel at providing equitable service. Such businesses are often lean and customized for their clients. Although this model can be more expensive, the outcomes of community impact can be reached without sacrificing customers who have difficulty with access.
As a human being, as well as a business owner, here are a few ways I am working to strengthen my equity lens an incorporate it into my business and daily life:
1. Discover what your customer feels they need to be successful, and how your service or product can help.
At the heart of an equitable relationship is a quest for personalized understanding. As you delve deeply into understanding your customer, remember to learn about their strengths, desired goals, what holds meaning to them, and who has influence in their lives. The more that you know about what a client needs to feel successful, the better you will be able to serve them.
2. Become a ‘warm demander.’
Author and teacher Lisa Delpit describes ‘warm demanders’ as leaders who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.” As business owners and employers, what we focus on is important if we wish to provide an ecosystem that strengthens our employees and satisfies our customers. Being warm demanders means you believe in those you have the pleasure to work with and for, and you take a stand for what you know they can accomplish.
3. Stay flexible.
The success of any business is that it does what it says it will do. All businesses are different when reaching this goal, but at our company we know that one-size sessions do not fit all. We are passionate about personalization and because of this we remain flexible in how we provide our services. Product-based businesses will have other ways they can remain flexible to boost their equity. It may come down to focus groups and innovations to ensure their product is accessible to everyone who desires it.
4. Don’t be culture-blind.
In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond says “culture, it turns out, is the way every brain makes sense of the world.” It is important that business owners identify with everything that defines their customer, including their culture. Becoming culturally responsive starts with showing genuine care that recognizes the unique gifts and talents of every person who works with you. This internal empathy and consideration for others will then spill out into the community and in all areas of customer service.
5. See being equitable as a competitive advantage.
Meticulon, an IT consulting firm, highlights their competitive advantage as having consultants with autism. Because of their ‘autism advantage,’ they are able to provide unprecedented software testing and quality assurance services. Meticulon wants to become known not just for their exceptional consulting services, but as proponents of social change who strip away societal barriers and create opportunities that lead to better service. They strive to educate the public to not see their consultants as having disabilities, but different abilities.
Of course this is just the beginning of the conversation of adding the spirit of equity into any business model. The next step will be to review and perhaps innovate your products and services to ensure the customers who desire and need your services/products can access them whenever they want or need them. This blog post series aims to help all social purpose businesses to continue strengthening their blended values — profit, planet, and of course their people.