Even the best efforts of retailers may be found wanting under the latest disability legislation. Ian Cook explains why

The good news is that with under a year to go, many retailers are not only clued up about what to do, but are doing it. Some of those that are not will soon be galvanised into action because this week the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association launched its High Street Charter supporting the new guidance from the Disability Rights Commission, hot on the heels of the commission’s launch of its campaign to open up businesses to Britain’s 8.5 million disabled people.

Those retailers who still think it’s okay to expect wheelchair users to access a supermarket via a hastily modified ramp at the delivery entrance must think again.

From October 1, 2004, all businesses will be required to ensure that disabled people have full physical access to their premises - via an acceptable entrance - or find themselves falling foul of disability discrimination laws. Under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, retailers must have taken “reasonable” steps to ensure their stores and depots are accessible not only to wheelchair users, but the visually impaired, deaf and mentally disabled.

Some are already a long way down the road to implementing the wide range of required changes to their store formats and services (see panel on Asda and Budgens). However, there are signs that with only one year to go and counting, others could well be caught short when it comes into force.

Some elements of the legislation were implemented in 1996 - mainly those that stopped businesses from refusing, point blank, to serve disabled people. In 1999, businesses had to make adjustments to “policies, practices and procedures” that might discriminate against disabled customers - for example requiring supermarkets to introduce disabled-friendly trolleys.

Next year’s changes are further reaching - and more expensive to implement. In fact, experts estimate that it will cost the supermarket sector alone hundreds of millions of pounds to adapt the physical layout of stores and depots. And that’s before the cost to thousands of independents, with far fewer resources to call upon, is taken into consideration.

So what does the legislation entail? A code of practice which accompanies it gives the following examples of areas where access problems may be found: steps, stairways, kerbs, paving, car parks, shop entrances and exits (including emergency escape routes) doors, gates, toilets, telephones, counters or service desks, lighting, lifts and escalators. Anything considered a barrier to access either has to be removed or modified, or an acceptable alternative must be provided.

One problem is the difficulty in gauging what does and does not comply. A change that, on the face of it, might seem to comply - for instance a wheelchair ramp - might not meet the Act’s requirements if it were deemed to be in an unacceptable place. On the other hand, expensive modifications may be superfluous to requirements. The law, however, only asks for reasonable adjustments and the Disability Rights Commission will take into account factors such as cost, disruption caused and the extent to which changes are practicable.

To be on the safe side, the commission therefore recommends all businesses that have not yet done so to have an access audit done. It has also written a Code of Practice that gives general guidance on these new responsibilities and how to meet them (see panel, left).

Once a physical barrier to access is identified in an audit the Act sets out four possible options - removing, altering or avoiding it, or providing the service by alternative means. The following are examples:

n Removing it - taking away display units at the entrance of a small shop which get in the way of a wheelchair user.

n Altering it - widening a doorway or putting in an access and exit ramp.

n Avoiding it - allowing customers confined to a wheelchair to use an accessible side entrance (a staff entrance, perhaps) if, for example, the front entrance could not be ramped because of planning restrictions.

n Providing goods or services by other means - bringing goods to customers where these are out of reach - for example on high shelving.

The commission recommends that any retailer left in doubt about a physical barrier to the services offered on the premises should remove or alter it.

So are retailers - the independents as well as the cash-rich supermarkets - ready for the legislation? Given that they are designed to be “trolley accessible” one would expect few, if any, problems for wheelchair users instore. And, by and large, there aren’t - certainly when retailers are compared with other businesses such as banks or restaurants.

A report on access published by the charity Scope in 2000 included a series of comments by disabled people about supermarkets which were mainly favourable.

One store’s policy of providing electric scooters was commended and another respondent praised his local freezer centre as “the best shop I’ve used in years”. The report did, however, also contain some specific criticisms of supermarkets. Unhelpful staff were mentioned in two reports. So-called “accessible toilets” were found on occasions to be poorly located, and accessible toilets which doubled as baby changing facilities were criticised.

Another area of concern was car parking. Disabled parking spaces are now widely available but not policed effectively. The big four supermarkets, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Safeway, have co-operated with groups that represent disabled people in an initiative called Baywatch. Their intention was to stamp out parking abuse by non-disabled customers who cheerfully leave their vehicles in bays reserved for disabled badge-holders.

Of course not all the issues that need to be tackled involve physical access to the premises. Retailers will also be expected to ensure their online facilities are accessible, which may require updating systems to be compatible with the software used by blind shoppers, for instance.

The question that legal teams will now be asking is what measures will be considered reasonable. For a definitive answer, they might well have to wait until the legislation is tested in the courts.
n Get an access audit done.

n Obtain the views of disabled customers and disabled employees. There are national groups which represent people with various disabilities, including disabled drivers and a group which campaigns for and advises on accessible toilets.

n Train staff to recognise the needs of disabled shoppers.

n Undertake periodic disability audits to help in the identification of less obvious or unintentional barriers to access

n Get information. The Disability Rights Commission has a helpline that businesses can use. the number is 08457 622633.

As Marie Pye, the commission’s head of policy, commented: “It is vital that every retailer take steps now to ensure that they will conform to the statutory requirements.”

You can also contact the Disability Rights Commission at www.open4all.org who will help not only to ensure that your business or service complies with the law but also, in doing so, allow you to benefit from the £50bn annual spending power of Britain’s 8.5 million disabled consumers.