Time is running out for retailers to ensure stores are disabled-friendly. Ian Cook joins Eva McCracken to see how one major multiple is shaping up

When Eva McCracken went to the checkout at Asda in Kirkcaldy, Fife, she was checking out more than just her groceries. McCracken is a disabled mystery shopper, one of a small group of disabled people used by Asda to find out how disability-friendly their 265 stores are. With just six months before the latest phase of the Disability Discrimination Act comes into force, Asda has been implementing a £30m programme to ensure its stores and services are accessible to disabled shoppers, as required by the legislation - and more.

As a wheelchair user, McCracken’s mission was to assess physical access to the store and how easy it is to navigate for someone with her limited mobility. She also had to monitor how staff on the checkout treated her, whether they appeared comfortable serving a customer seated in a wheelchair and whether they used “inappropriate” expressions or behaviour.

Like the other mystery shoppers, including vision-impaired, deaf or hard-of-hearing customers, she was also asked to critique what the disabled parking facilities were like, how Asda compared with other supermarkets, and whether she would recommend the store to someone who also had her disabilities.

McCracken is a former occupational therapist and member of an access group in Fife, Scotland, so she is well versed in access issues from both a private and a professional perspective. Before embarking on the assignment she was sent a detailed 10-page questionnaire divided into sections, such as first impressions, store environment, cleanliness, checkout and entry into store.

As the purpose is to remain undiscovered, McCracken was asked not to carry the questionnaire as she went round, taking instead a small “shopping list sized” notebook to record any interesting or revealing experiences. She was also asked to record her comments as soon after her visit as possible so her impressions were as fresh in her memory as possible.

Her overall impression of the visit was a positive one. Staff were friendly and she wasn’t left with the feeling that her disability or her wheelchair were a nuisance. The car parking was good for disabled drivers and all the disabled spaces were occupied by legitimate disabled blue badge holders.

But she did encounter a few problems. Asda has been working with a trolley manufacturer on a prototype for a “one size fits all” trolley for wheelchairs.

However, the model has not yet arrived and McCracken’s biggest problem was that she couldn’t find a trolley that would fasten on to her wheelchair - an electric chair and different in design to manual wheelchairs.

She looked for assistance from staff, but initially it was not offered. Only about half way through her shop, did a member of staff assist her.

McCracken also had problems with one of the facilities specially designed for disabled shoppers. She was asked to test the alarm in the disabled shoppers’ toilet to see whether a member of staff would come when it was set off. She did as instructed and had to wait for several minutes before anyone came to see if there was anything wrong.

“It would have been a long time if I had been in some kind of difficulty, so I wasn’t too impressed,” she says, although she added that when someone did finally arrive, the member of staff was extremely helpful.

The problems McCracken experienced highlight the value of the mystery shopper programme, says Philip Davies, Asda’s customer service project manager. Although all 118,000 Asda staff are given some disability awareness training it can sometimes be difficult to identify exactly who wants help and who doesn’t, he points out.

Of the toilet incident he says: “Although something like this seldom happens, this is a way to make colleagues aware of what they should do when it does.”

Nevertheless, in Kirkcaldy, it sounds as if most things are going to plan, with fine-tuning needed for the assisted shopper service and the emergency call response at the accessible toilet. Overall, McCracken was impressed by her shop there, just like most of the mystery shoppers who have been sent there. In fact, 85% said they would recommend the store to someone with the same disability as theirs. Asda is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure that it’s prepared for the Disability Discrimination Act when it comes into force this October. The question is: is everyone else?
Supermarkets must make any reasonable adjustment that is necessary to ensure their premises and services are accessible to disabled users by October. Physical features that might be affected include: n those arising from a building’s design or construction or from the building’s approach or exit

n fixtures, fittings furnishings, furniture, equipment or materials

n any quality of land in the premises

Where barriers prevent access they may have to be removed, altered or an alternative method provided.

Retailers are not the only businesses that need to be prepared: the legislation applies to any organisation that provides goods, facilities or services to the public.

It is irrelevant whether the service is paid for or free, or whether it is provided in the public, private or voluntary sectors.

Some 8.6 million people in the UK are classified as disabled. That’s nearly one fifth of the working age population. Businesses who would like to learn more about complying with the impending legislation can contact the Disability Rights Commission helpline on 08457 622633 or the Disability Rights Commission at www.open4all.org.