Wade Watts’ pioneering work to make Canada accessible for all

If you own a business and you want to best serve your customers, it seems almost intuitive that you’d be putting down barriers that prevent them from receiving your service.

No business owner wants to exclude potential customers from the next big sale.

Yet some businesses are still learning about the opportunities that a growing and vital share of the market can offer.

We’re talking about accessibility.

The human and moral case for improving accessibility is a no-brainer. It’s just the right thing to do to offer your service equitably to all members of your community.

The business case may be just as compelling: if you’re turning away customers because they can’t access what you’re offering, you would be most likely inclined to re-consider your set-up.

Wade Watts is a living testament to the vital importance of accessibility in the world of business.

After living with a rare, undiagnosed form of Multiple Sclerosis for most of his career in civil construction, Wade went through a series of increasingly devastating health situations that nearly took his life (twice), leaving him with serious mobility restrictions (read the incredible account of Watts’ personal history).

Watts, who recently joined CFIB, now uses a wheelchair to get around, and it was this dramatic turn in his life that really opened his eyes as to how many barriers exist in Canadian society.

Rather than let his challenging health situation hold him back, Watts was inspired to take direct and meaningful action. In some ways, Watts turned what may have been seen as a tragedy into a purposeful calling.

Leaning on his business acumen and construction background, Watts started a company called Wheelchair Friendly Solutions, based in Trenton, Ontario (“The leader in providing solutions for an accessible world”).

It’s not just hardware such as oversized buttons, signage, or ramps, either: Watts’ company does accessibility compliance audits, education such as staff training, plus consulting services. One-stop shopping for all your accessibility needs.

Wade is concerned that progress on increasing accessibility for people with disabilities in Canada has stalled.

When asked about the overall state of affairs on this front, Watts doesn’t mince words.

“It doesn’t look very good,” says Watts. “We have a lot of work to do. I’m not sure exactly why it’s happening.”

He theorizes that the sluggish pace of implementation of accessibility measures in businesses has to do with lack of information, myths about costs, or perceived hardship to put them in place.

“From my investigations, a lot of it is untruths about the costs and difficulty of making things accessible,” says Watts. “A lot of my customers are surprised when they see just how inexpensive accessibility can be for their business, and they wish they had done it years earlier.”

Regardless of what the rest of the world is doing to encourage and facilitate accessibility in their businesses, Wade takes it upon himself to practice what he preaches by employing five people with disabilities. He recently hired a worker with autism.

“When I gave him his first paycheque, he had tears in his eyes. He did an amazing job,” says Watts about his dedicated new employee. “I’m humbled by it, I’ve gotta be honest about it. It actually chokes me up a little bit to think about what an amazing worker he is.”

Watts makes a strong case for the wisdom of taking accessibility seriously. An ageing population means that, once you start including friends and family, approximately 53% of the marketplace will consist of a person with a disability, or someone close to them.

According to Watts, there are nearly 1.85 million mobility-disabled people in Ontario alone; 3.8 million in Canada, and almost 2 billion people world-wide (this is almost certainly an underestimate, too). Whatever the exact current number, Watts says his research tells him that these numbers will double by 2025.

Many companies are profiting immensely from this trend, yet Wade points out that people can’t find a decent wheelchair for less than $4,000.

Watts, with his signature non-nonsense tenacity, simply took matters into his own hands and ordered the parts for a wheelchair himself, building his own manual wheelchair for about $700.

He says some manufacturers speak about liability issues to justify their exorbitant pricing, but Watts notes this doesn’t seem to be the case for many other products that are mobile (“If you buy a mountain bike and ride off a cliff, is the manufacturer liable?”)

If business owners needed any more motivation to bring their operations up to speed to serve the full complement of their customers, Watts says they may wish to think of the business downside of not making their business accessibility-compliant.

It’s a bottom-line-with-a twist-proposition that Watts brings to his own approach to selling his goods and services.

“We’ll make it so cheap that it’s cheaper than the first fine (for non-compliance),” says Watts. “I just want to see people understand that they don’t need to be afraid of this.”

wfsi-logo-200x58.pngLearn more about Watts and his inspiring personal story, and how he can help your business with low-cost accessibility projects, at ww.wheelchairfriendlysolutions.ca.

 

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