Editor’s Note: Juan Betancourt is on a path to change the world for people with disabilities. A Fulbright scholar recipient with a master’s degree in international business, Betancourt wants governments and businesses to make facilities all over the world more wheelchair accessible by proving there’s a financial incentive for venues that welcome people with disabilities with open arms. Betancourt, who lives in Bogota, Colombia, has a C4/C5 incomplete spinal cord injury.
Once business people in various countries realize how huge the sports and tourism markets are, and that they can attract people with disabilities by simply changing sports complexes, hotels, motels and tourist attractions to be more accessible, they’ll see that this financial incentive far outweighs the cost of making their facilities accessible. But I didn’t come to this realization myself overnight.
In 2003 during my last year in high school, I went on a trip with my classmates. I dove into a swimming pool and broke my neck, after hitting my head on the bottom of the swimming pool. When I woke up in the hospital, I thought about as most people who have experienced severe injures do, “Why did this happen to me at this time of my life when everything was going great for me? Won’t this accident negatively affect my family and friends?” I had made extremely good grades in school, had a lot of friends, went to numbers of parties and had a girlfriend. I also played two sports – basketball and tennis. Because of my injuries in 2003, I knew I probably never would play basketball or tennis again. I spent 3 months in a special care unit. Then I went to a rehabilitation center built specifically for people with spinal cord injuries.
In the last month or two of my rehabilitation, I wondered, “What am I going to do with my life now?”
The University of La Sabana was nextdoor to the rehabilitation center – one of the best universities in Bogota. I studied what the school offered and discovered a course of study titled, international business. I decided to take two classes to learn about international business. Since I liked those two courses, I decided to major in international business. Finally 5 years later, I got a bachelor’s degree in international business. Before I finished my degree, I began to work for a company called Unilever – a worldwide company that produced consumer goods. Two of their more recognizable brands were Dove and Lipton Tea. I did my internship with them in the area of logistics – supply chain management. I worked there for a year and was given the option to continue on with the company or to quit work to finish my thesis for my undergraduate degree. I made the decision to finish my bachelor’s degree.
After I completed my degree and thesis, I worked as an independent consultant in international business. In 2012, I got a job as a marketing consultant for the fresh cut flower industry in Colombia as a marketing analyst to develop a marketing strategy for this flower company to sell its flowers to U.S. Walmart stores. This program was highly successful, and that relationship continues today.
While I was working for the flower company, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship. I’d applied first in 2010 when I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in international business but wasn’t chosen. After I got my degree in 2011, I applied again. In 2012, I received a letter stating that I had been chosen for a Fulbright scholarship to get my master’s degree in international business at Florida International University. I spent 1-1/2 years completing my master’s degree there and did a 4 month internship with Sony of Latin America.
I graduated with honors. Then I was given an opportunity to stay in the states for another year after graduation and apply what I had learned.
I contacted the flower company I had worked for in Colombia and was given a job working with the U.S. side of the company.
The Fulbright scholarship has a requirement that once you’ve completed your education through that scholarship that you have a responsibility to return to your home country and share the knowledge that you’ve learned. Then there’s a sustainable flow of information from the Fulbright scholars back to their home countries. In April 2015, I returned to Colombia after searching for jobs there. Since I was a person with a disability, I wanted to improve accessibility for people with disabilities in Colombia and throughout the world. I’d learned that the business enterprises that were accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities actually could improve their bottom-line profits.
Colombia’s Business Climate
When I returned to Colombia, I once again realized that generally speaking, the business people in Colombia had a strong stereotype about what a person with a disability could accomplish, even if that person had a very good education and resume.
The stereotype of a person with a disability in Colombia and many other parts of the world was that these people only could work in call centers and do customer service jobs.
I decided, “Okay, if I can’t get a job and use the knowledge and education I’ve obtained, I’ll create a job.” From that idea, I started my company NKLUSVLIFE (Inclusive Life) to promote inclusion of people with disabilities legally. My company would show that if a restaurant, a mall, a hotel, a motel and/or a tourist attraction made provisions to be more inclusive for people with disabilities and targeted and welcomed them, the businesses actually could increase their bottom-line profits to offset the remedies that needed to be made and make a very good profit.
They’re usually accompanied by family, friends or caregivers who will go into businesses that they’ve never been in before simply to be with their friends who have disabilities. If the service, the product or the venue has a chance to show what it provides, they’ll not only attract more people with disabilities but also a large base of consumers who aren’t disabled. So, the market share for that business triples when it becomes more inclusive. Another factor in this equation is that if a business is welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities, those customers are more likely to patronize and be loyal to that business, rather than going to shop at another business that may not be accessible.
Our company offers marketing solutions, brand management and consulting for businesses. Here in Colombia, I’m planting seeds to prove that inclusion increases profits. When I go into a business that is accessible, I name the business, and I take a lot of pictures. I put them on Facebook, Instagram and all forms of social media to let people with disabilities in Colombia know where they can go and be included in the products and services provided by that business. I tell the people on my social media platforms to go to these businesses and trade with these people, because they’ve made inclusion an important part of the services and products they provide. Now I’m getting inquiries from people with disabilities asking me where they can go and find the products and services that they need or want in their area. I’ve created a map that shows the inclusive businesses in Bogota. I also send out messages to the businesses that aren’t accessible and suggest minor changes that they can do to make their facilities more accessible and attract more people with disabilities and those without. I’m seeing more businesses warming up to the idea of making more money by making their business more accessible.
Betancourt’s International Goals
One day I’d like to work with wheelchair sports teams, leagues and national teams to set up their travel plans. When people with disabilities go to other countries to participate in sports and/or on vacations, we can let that group know the places that are inclusive, and why they may want to consider certain hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions that have made the commitment to be inclusive. I know this is a big dream, but I’ve already begun this mission. I’m trying to change the way that people in Bogota, Colombia, view people with disabilities. Instead of just seeing a person with a disability, I hope they see that person as a customer who can bring them dollars and even more dollars that come from the friends and family accompanying the person with a disability.
There is a large army of people with disabilities who have money to spend. We’ll spend our money with the businesses that recognize we are a customer base they want to attract. I know that I can’t immediately make a worldwide change in the way people with disabilities are viewed and the needs that they have. However, if I can start off changing my little corner of the world and work with groups of people who travel the world, I will have accomplished my mission and met the purpose I was trained to do.
In the near future, I hope to return to the U. S. Because inclusion already exists there, most businesses and venues are aware of what they need to do to be inclusive. I’d like to come back and promote a concept that I learned while I was in Florida to prove that inclusion results in bigger profits. For instance, often bars and restaurants in the States have a ladies’ night out on Thursdays. The ladies don’t pay a cover charge and don’t pay for their drinks. Businesses have learned that if they attract the ladies, the men will come, and they’ll spend their money, causing that business to make a bigger profit on Thursday nights and bring in a new consumer base.
Since that strategy is well known all over the United States, when I show a business that by having an inclusive Tuesday or Wednesday night, so people with disabilities can come in with no cover charge and receive a discount on what they eat or drink, not only will that attract people with disabilities, but also their friends, neighbors, family and caregivers – an entirely new customer base. This process will offset the discounts given to persons with disabilities, increase the company’s bottom line profits for that night and create new business in the future. Once a business realizes that people with disabilities can improve their bottom line profits, they’ll be more likely to make the business accessible for those people.
About the Author:
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.