How One Man Is Helping Businesses Reach More Customers With Cost-Effective, Inclusive Products

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Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Patrick Hughes Jr., founder and CEO of Inclusion Solutions, still hears of gaps in its coverage. In a recent meeting, Hughes learned that Joe Martin, an alderman with quadriplegia, can’t get through the doors of 95 percent of the businesses in his town of Appleton, Wis., even though most are ostensibly ADA-compliant.

“These companies are thinking they’re compliant because they’re meeting the minimum requirements,” Hughes explains. “People are going to the minimum standards as opposed to looking at the spirit—and the spirit has been missed.”

Helping business owners obey both the letter and the spirit of the ADA is the mission of Inclusion Solutions, an Evanston, Ill.-based manufacturer of cost-effective products that make commercial spaces, drive-thrus, gas pumps and polling places more accessible.

The company’s BigBell product allows restaurant or store patrons with mobility challenges to push a large wireless doorbell for assistance, so the business owner can open the door and provide a portable ramp if needed. It’s an economical solution for small businesses that lease their space or can’t afford to install permanent ramps and automatic doors.

When Hughes learned that deaf people can’t use drive-thru windows with speaker systems, he devised OrderAssist, which enables customers who are deaf or hard of hearing to alert a restaurant to their need to go directly to the window, where staffers can hand them an order form. Adoptees of the system include 60 Culver’s restaurants. OrderAssist can be a hard sell, Hughes says. “When you look at drive-thru metrics, it’s all about speed and accuracy.” But with millions of customers who have some degree of hearing loss, he points out, businesses need to adapt. “I’m sorry, but you’re dealing with the public—you’re dealing with who comes and however they come.”

Another Inclusion Solutions product, FuelCall, addresses inaccessibility at self-service gas stations. The disability community found the ADA-compliant option, a sign asking customers to honk a horn for assistance, unsuitable for a variety of reasons: They were reluctant to call attention to themselves and were unsure if anyone would be able to help them, as gas stations are mandated to provide assistance at the pump only when there is more than one employee on duty. With FuelCall, gas pumps with assistance are clearly designated; a button allows the customer to request assistance discreetly, and clear signage provides hours of service.

FuelCall found a champion in U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a military veteran who lost both legs in combat. With her support, and with funding from the Department of Defense, FuelCall systems are being installed in 275 military bases and gas stations to ensure accessibility to disabled military personnel.

While Hughes admits that it can be tough to assess ROI, the impact on those who use his products is clear. He cites one of the earliest users of OrderAssist: “I watched this woman using a drive-thru for the first time in her life. She cried.”