There are over ten million less able adults in the UK who form an important part of the retail industry’s customer base. Making premises, goods and services accessible to them is ethical and makes good business sense. It is also a legal requirement.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), retailers must take reasonable steps to remove or alter physical features that make it difficult for less able people to access their goods and services. Alternatively, they may provide a reasonable means of avoiding such features, or offer their goods and services to less able people in a different way.
What qualifies as reasonable?
The DDA does not define what is reasonable; it is up to individual businesses to judge what is reasonable for them. Retailers should deliberate the effectiveness, practicality, and cost of proposed adjustments.
Ultimately, only a court can determine what qualifies as reasonable. Companies with large financial resources are usually expected to do more than those with limited funds.
General access principles
Retailers should consider the following principles when planning access adjustments:
– Dignity – access solutions must respect the dignity and convenience of less able people, who should access goods and services in the same way as other customers if possible.
– Disability awareness training – staff should understand and respect the needs of the less able, and be aware of the DDA and its implications.
– Use of space – rearranging the layout of a store may be a cost effective way to improve access.
– Anticipate needs – store managers should examine premises thoroughly to identify potential access problems. This is a requirement of the DDA.
– Building regulations – physical adjustments must comply with the appropriate building regulations.
An access audit evaluates a building’s accessibility. It follows a less able visitor’s path of travel and covers their arrival and entry into the store, routes to and around goods and services, and departure. By conducting an access audit, businesses can identify what they need to change to make their premises accessible to less able customers.
Large stores may have many issues to resolve. They should separate these into short, medium, and long-term priorities. Short-term priorities are adjustments companies can make quickly and economically. Medium-term priorities are actions that require forward planning (e.g. installing a wheelchair lift). Long-term priorities include major structural changes, which take time to complete.
The DDA recognises that small stores do not usually have the same level of resources as large ones. The emphasis in these cases tends to be on low cost, practical adjustments. However, small shops should consider structural changes if feasible and affordable.
Retailers planning access adjustments should talk to less able employees and customers to get valuable feedback and suggestions. This could be in-store or through market research (e.g. online feedback forums and local access groups).
– Approach – the route to a store must be well lit, well maintained and free of obstructions. Car parks should accommodate wheelchair users.
– Entry to the premises – less able customers feel valued if they can enter a store independently. Solutions include ramps and platform lifts for wheelchair users, fitting handrails to steps, and raising the pavement to the level of the entrance.
– Doors – doors and doorways can obstruct less able customers. Stores should use automatic sliding doors if possible, or make existing doors easier to open by maintaining them properly and positioning handles at a convenient height for wheelchair users. Entrance mats must be flush with the ground.
– Circulation – routes around a store should be free of obstructions and clearly marked (signs with large tactile colour text are ideal).
– Stairs – platform lifts allow wheelchair users to move between levels.
– Shelves, display racks etc – repositioning shelves and units may improve accessibility. Product information must be easy to read. Special advice counters, changing rooms, and seating areas where personal shoppers can assist less able customers should be available where possible.
– Queues – wheelchair users must have room to queue without difficulty. If customers have to wait to receive a service, stores must provide seats suitable for people with mobility impairments.
– Counters/checkouts – checkout areas should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Lowered counter sections will allow wheelchair users and people of limited height to use chip and pin machines.
– Toilets – it is cost effective to make existing toilets accessible to less able customers. Solutions include grab rails, extra lighting, fixtures and fitting of contrasting colours for the visually impaired, non-slip floor surfaces, and outward opening doors.
– Exiting the premises – less able customers should be able to leave a building via the same way they went in (e.g. using a ramp or wheelchair lift). Retailers must also ensure there are accessible emergency exits. Exit routes should be free of clutter.
An essential requirement
Business success in the retail industry depends on good customer service. Complying with the DDA does not have to be difficult or expensive, and information is readily available.