Sunday, September 14, 2008

Business Ethics, Medical Ethics and Autism

How does a society make ethical progress with regard to stigmatized health conditions like autism?

Advocacy helps. Preaching, as by the prophets of old, can make a difference. But capitalism and the profit motive is sometimes the most powerful force.

An article in today's New York Times travel section - "Bypassing the Roadblocks of Autism" - describes the problems families with children with autism have in taking vacations. People with autistic spectrum disorders often have great difficulty with new environments. Waiting on lines at an airport, passing through security checks, sitting still in an airplane or on a bus, can be major challenges for someone with autism. And autism often impairs the capacity for constructive communication, so a stressed out child with autism can become part of a destructive spiral, as in the situation of a 2 year old who was chucked off (see here and here) an American Airlines flight in June for pitching a fit about the safety belt.

But families with autism represent a potential market for the travel industry. Families with (1) children with autism and (2) money can (3) afford vacations if the opportunity is given to them. That's a market niche. Entrepreneurs catch on. An organization called "Autism on the Seas" offers to "service the cruising needs of families and individuals faced with autism." The Smugglers Notch resort in Vermont offers an "adaptive program" (SNAP) for people with disabilities, including autism.

Ethical progress often depends on farsighted, charismatic individuals like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King who identify a problem and lead others into new attitudes and behaviors. But those of us who are concerned with ethics and advocacy need to recognize that often the most powerful force for change is someone else's desire to make a buck. Wise prophets will hope that businesses that cater to stigmatized populations can make profits of their own!


Anonymous said...


As you have shown, there are times where the private sector is in the best position to cater for the disadvantaged, including those unfortunate enough to suffer from autism.

Businesses targeted at specific niche markets relating to the disadvantaged will only be successful if they provide a quality service which caters adequately for a real need.

Accordingly, niche players in business have two key incentives which may be lacking in the public sector - to tailor their services to suit the needs of specific disadvantaged groups and to provide a level of service which adequately suits the need of the disadvantaged group concerned.

Unfortunately, this does not help those families who are not sufficiently wealthy to take advantage of such services. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the private sector should not cater for the needs of disadvantaged groups in cases where they can earn an economic return on investment in the process.



Jim Sabin said...

Hello Andrew -

Thank you for these comments. You are completely correct that the private sector services I discussed in the post do not help those who, for financial reasons, don't have the option of purchasing those services. My thought was that even though the private sector services for people with autism will only reach those of some degree of affluence, they (a) do serve a segment of the population and (b) make a contribution to reducing stigma and isolation.

The U.S., unfortunately, is a country of increasing income inequality, so private sector solutions will reach fewer and fewer until that trend is reversed.