Sweeping legislation makes employers responsible for ensuring equality for staff and customers who are disabled. Christine Hayhurst helps you stay on the right side of the law

This month legislation came into force protecting individuals with disabilities in the workplace. But it doesn’t only mean you have to look after your staff. From now on, the legal onus is upon you to ensure that your staff and your customers are free from discrimination anywhere in your workplace.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, there are 10 million disabled adults in the UK and retailers could potentially face huge legal bills if they fail to implement the required changes. And, unlike other statutes in recent years, this legislation isn’t staggered according to organisational size. In practical terms this will mean delivering equal rights for equal access to employment opportunities, employee benefits and amenities and, in structural terms, it could mean installing ramps and removing barriers and obstacles.
So what should you be considering to make sure your organisation doesn’t fall foul of the law?
First, bear in mind the over-arching demand of the legislation. Namely that organisations must make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure their facilities are easy for disabled people to use. The straightforward reaction of placing a ramp near a staircase is too flippant and certainly not far-reaching enough. After all, disability doesn’t just equate to an inability to walk. It can mean so much more, so you need to ask yourself whether you have accommodated the needs of people with other disabilities, too. Does your store have adequate signage - at various heights, in large enough sizes? Have you considered the needs of those with limited sight or hearing?
And then it’s a question of training. Are your staff aware of the ways in which they can help? On one hand it could be by doing something like using larger print on address cards so that they are more easily seen by someone with a sight impairment. Think about the number of mailings we all get if we have storecards - if they can’t be read, you’re discriminating and potentially losing custom at the same time.
But of course, it could be extremely complicated. A colleague may have mental health problems and this requires specialist training - it’s far more than simply lending a supportive ear. So you need to incorporate training into the actions you plan to take and find budget to do this.
It’s also worth undertaking an access audit. Remember that you must act on the flaws within your organisation and so identify the areas that need attention, rather than responding to the demands of legislation in a knee-jerk manner. Think about all routes into your organisation, including virtual reality. After all, according to the Disability Rights Commission, eight out of 10 websites are poorly designed, with one common
complaint being a colour contrast issue. It is possible that people may consider themselves discriminated against by dint of the fact they cannot access company information. What if an individual is researching the organisation prior to coming for a job interview or if a member of staff needs information on your intranet?
To help your staff, once you have conducted a review, it’s worth creating an anti-discrimination policy. In it you should detail what is required of your staff under the terms of the law and see if you can go a stage further. Can you give examples of good practice to show people what they should do? What have you been doing already that falls under the legislation? After all, if you can demonstrate proactive behaviour it will serve as a clear indication that yours is an organisation embracing the need for change.
It’s certainly worth seeing how other organisations in the sector are implementing change. This is, perhaps, one area where store-wars need not come into play and all organisations will benefit from sharing their experience.But take care only to implement and include commitments that are realistic.
You should also draw up a programme of action and assign people to the tasks. It is essential that someone has the responsibility for carrying them out. Remember that the legislation has not been enacted to make life difficult.
Ultimately what you are trying to do is make sure that individuals, whatever their personal circumstances, feel welcome and at ease within your organisation.
n Christine Hayhurst is director of professional affairs at the Chartered Management Institute