Can success in business be achieved _through_ disability? Canadian Rich Donovan is showing us how

Since I was raised in a family with a parent who had a lifelong (mental health) disability that was transmitted through several generations, including mine, I have volunteered as a speaker and advocate in the past for people with disabilities (PWD).

In my two previously published ebooks (“Getting Past It” and “Keep Going”), I lauded the efforts of clients and contacts to find space in our workplaces and communities and to demonstrate their resilience. PWD of all kinds no longer exist in the corporate or business world solely as “token hires”: we are holding our own.

Enter former successful NYSE trader (recruited by Merrill Lynch well before the stockmarket crash in 2008) and an Ivy League MBA graduate, Canadian Rich Donovan. Donovan has focused his career on the disability market. He is a financial risk analyst with difference: He has a vision of converting the “cause” of today’s world of disability into a corporate and financial market.

And another factor of his difference? He happens to have Cerebral Palsy.

He hasn’t let it slow him down.

In his 2018 book, Unleash Different: Achieving  Business Success Through Disability (Toronto: ECW Press), Donovan contends that the charitable sector of fundraising for people with many kinds of disabilities (and usually adopting a particular hero as spokesperson or leader) is an age-old model that provides no economic identity and future for PWD.

He says that this sector has sold governments and corporations a “community mentality that damages the disability market, people with disabilities and shareholder value.” Although this has “not” been “intentional,” it certainly is “limited and problematic.”

Charitable organizations for PWD remain based in a regulatory mindset around disability, of compliance that is rooted in affirmative action and hiring quotas, and that brackets off the economic/investment market. Valuing the truths and justice that have begun to arise from the “Me Too” movement for women’s rights and how they intersect and dovetail with the rights of PWD, Donovan never disputes the important gains in the past of affirmative action (e.g. hiring quotas).

But he does dispute that the model has an identifiable future, alone, for PWD. While acknowledging the truths of the charitable sector, he insists we must move beyond that model. Hiring practices, while important, don’t drive shareholder value. Shareholders will invest in disability-based or friendly companies, when they see them as competitive and profitable.

As Donovan writes in his book, the social goals of investing in disability are clear, but the investment goals have not been. A few short years ago, he performed months of independent, risk-based, mathematical analysis and found a 2.82% steady increase in ROI over the first five years for the disability market. Donovan made the iconic step of taking his company, “Return on Disability” (RODI) to trade on the floor the NYSE on September 11, 2014. (See ).

In everyday terms, Donovan argues that many companies think they’re doing well by investing $3M+ on developing a disability policy that collects dust on a shelf, while it does nothing to increase the company’s profit or revenue. This he terms the “charity fallacy.”

As he writes on his website, through a “proprietary and proven process” of translating “disability success factors into specific actions that create sustainable value,” Donovan gives “corporate and government clients insights and tools to frame disability as a global emerging market.”

Investors increasingly recognize that 1.3 Billion people in the world identify with disability— the largest emerging market in the world, and one larger than either China or India.

He notes that when you “include friends and family, the disability market touches 53% of all consumers.”

Simply said, “Unless the consumer and investor believe something and act on it, the conversation will never lead to action” and action is the vehicle of change: The RODI works to “leverage” company practices “from the investors down, while at the same time getting companies to listen to and meet consumer demand by improving the ways they address disability.”

From there, consumers can be engaged to pressure companies toward greater inclusivity, whereby sales increase on soda pop cans that are easier-to-open and when grocery store signs use icons that are easier to comprehend.

While Canada lags behind the US in taking this market-driven approach to disability, companies here are realizing that a traditional, compliance focus on the disability market has cost the major five Canadian banks more than $250M, since 1989. Put simply, by 2017, three out of five of Canadian banks have achieved no appreciable financial gain for PWD. But, as online data shows, TD, RBC and Scotiabank have begun to make strides (see

America’s greatest successes in this arena have been Pepsi and Disney, who focus to great extents on serving PWD by making their products or services disability friendly and simultaneously raising the value of their stocks.

Donovan is not a lone wolf. He is quick to say that he cannot alone do the work of making disability a profitable sector, even with his wife,  marketer Jenn Donovan, and other specialists on board: The sector is “too big,” he says.

One of Donovan’s colleagues, former Ontario franchise owner of Tim Horton’s, Mark Wafer, who was featured alongside Donovan in the CBC’s Ioanna Roumeliotis’ stories on disability inclusion (2014, 2016), has founded Canada’s “only national, bilingual business network dedicated to helping private and public sector organizations become more accessible to and inclusive of PWD.” You can view the site and companies engaging in those efforts at

Donovan is sought after by businesses and governments for advice when acting on the disability market. What he is doing for PWD, he stresses, may seem mercenary and earn the ire of the charitable sector. But RODI’s principles can be applied to any segment of difference (gender, race, class, age, regionalism, differing abilities, etc.). And while Donovan’s focus started primarily on the US and Canada, his insights and acumen apply across the globe.

In October 2016, he was named one of the “Top 50 Most Influential People with Disabilities in the world” by UK-based Powerful Media and Shaw Trust.

He continues to assert that we need “less emotional assertion” around PWD and “more evidence-based discussion.”

While Donovan’s influence is appreciable over large corporations, entrepreneurs with disabilities and local Canadian markets—including small business—can join in the work of making PWD an economically viable market with broad capacity for social growth and change.

And now it’s your turn. Do you see the value and progress in making businesses both inclusive to PWD and fiscally profitable? Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this discussion.