Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May.
12 million disabled people in this country have £200 billion spending power, according to a study by DisabledGo for the Department of Work and Pensions, published at the beginning of December.
Despite the value to our economy, thousands of public places are inaccessible; the research, which was the largest ever undertaken, discovered, during personal visits to 30,000 shops and restaurants nationally, that:
- One fifth of shops excluded wheelchair users, lacking ramps;
- Hearing loops and braille menus are rare in both shops and restaurants;
- Changing rooms are inaccessible in two-thirds of department stores, and a third lack accessible lavatories, whilst 40 per cent of restaurants also fail the lavatory test;
- 65 per cent of retail staff and 45 per cent of restaurant staff are not trained to assist disabled customers;
- Neither retailers nor restaurants generally carry accessibility information on their websites.
When asked to comment on these statistics, only four per cent of leading national retailers and five per cent of restaurant chains responded… So it’s not a priority then? Shame on them.
When challenged, some retailers cited planning restrictions in relation to Conservation Areas and Listed buildings but this is no excuse. May I remind you that the Equalities Act of 2010 obliges organisations to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people.
In response to the report, shocked Minister of State, Mark Harper, said, ‘Everyone deserves to be able to go shopping or enjoy a meal or drink with their friends or colleagues. Disabled people are no exception. I’m calling on the retail and hospitality industry to look at what more they can do to better cater for disabled people.’ Warm words, but we need a bit of stick to make it happen; using business rates could be the ultimate answer, although I dislike fines and other penalties when organisations should appreciate that compliance will add value.
Former M&S director, Barry Stevenson, who chairs DisabledGo, commented, ‘we are pleased that many retailers have invested significantly in improved accessibility in the last 10 years, but the majority are still not doing enough. It’s entirely unacceptable for disabled people, their families and carers not to be able to access all high street shops and facilities.’
He noted that, ‘management needs to do what’s reasonable and think more about how they can help disabled people, and that includes better communication online. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune to do the right thing.’
Is there any European funding to tap into? Local Enterprise Partnerships could use some of their growth fund to encourage compliance, because businesses can only benefit. As Paralympian wheelchair user, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson said on the radio, ‘if I get good service, I will keep going back’.
Dame Tami also mentioned that people tend to look down on those in wheelchairs; sometimes they simply start pushing her without asking whether indeed she needs help! Undoubtedly, the intentions are kind, but also patronising. What’s wrong with us – can’t we learn to communicate at wheelchair level, or are we too embarrassed? I suspect the latter is true, because we are only too well aware that it could happen to any of us at any time, through accident, stroke or illness, and it’s too difficult to acknowledge that fact. So we all need to be educated to understand people’s difficulties, enabling us to offer assistance in the right way, and not to be offended if refused because disabled people value their independence as much as the rest of us.
Town Centre partnerships and Chambers of Commerce should co-ordinate training programmes with secondary schools, colleges and businesses of all types, shapes and sizes – from small independents to major chains.
Local authorities also have responsibilities; disabled people are taxpayers, too, and deserve support, so this is an opportunity for council leaders to insist on change, and to introduce policies which make it easier. Top of that list should be reviewing Planning conditions which actively prevent disabled access; people are more important than bureaucracy and a good architect could design improvements which would actually enhance buildings.
As I regularly hold open the swing doors to Debenhams in Ipswich for mums with prams and people in wheelchairs, I have to ask why the store doesn’t have automatic doors as does M&S down the road. Simple things can make a big difference. A-boards blocking pavements and a lack of town centre seating contribute to the ‘unwelcome’ culture for anyone elderly or with sight problems. Do something about it!
Councils should use their influence to ensure that their towns and cities, and rural communities, are ‘disabled friendly’. Introduce disabled champions, and use the local media to communicate the message.
Have officers responsible for equality read this report and brought it to anyone’s attention? Are the economic development teams aware of the implications? Probably no, and no!
So, it’s time for council leaders to instruct their officers to examine the issue and make recommendations with an implementation plan to Cabinets in the New Year (no later!)
If not convinced, and you’re worried about potential budget implications, I suggest you check out www.disabledgo.com and you’ll be inspired. Remember – disabled people are worth it.