Inclusive Access For All
Gareth Tancred

The true cost of debarring the disabled

A government-backed audit of more than 30,000 businesses recently revealed “unacceptable” levels of disabled access to high street shops and restaurants, leading to Minister for Disabled people Mark Harper, calling on the retail and hospitality industry to look at what more they can do to better cater for disabled people.

Gareth Tancred, Chief Executive at the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM), explains why going beyond compliance is the key to creating truly inclusive environments, and that those businesses that fail to be inclusive run the risk of finding themselves out in the cold.

Fair practice for access

An inclusive environment is one where a disabled person can use the same routes as a non-disabled person. While unquestionably, some retailers have invested significantly in improving accessibility in the last 10 years, there are still many who are not doing enough, and this study from DisabledGo highlights the extent to which inclusive access remains a problem for many businesses.

At least 50 per cent of disabilities are invisible. Add to that, the fact that people are now living longer which in itself, brings an increasing chance of disability, and it’s evident that service providers need to anticipate the needs of individuals, even where they are not always apparent.

Despite this, two in five food outlets in this study had no accessible toilet, more than nine in 10 (91%) of retail firms gave no accessibility information on their websites, and two thirds of shop staff had no training in helping to cater for disabled customers. It begs the question as to who is ultimately losing out, given that the estimated spend by disabled people this Christmas could amount to £200bn.

A design for life

Whilst the findings of this study have helped in bringing the issue to the mainstream news agenda, unfortunately, the problem of accessibility and inclusion is not confined to the retail sector. As the professional body for facilities management, we recognise how widespread the problem is, and the significant role that facilities managers play at being at the forefront of making their buildings accessible to all. Workplace conditions are vital for accessibility, and ensuring an inclusive environment should be the fundamental objective of all building design.

By adopting universal design and inclusive practices at the earliest stage, everyone should be able to access services independently, and have equal opportunity to enter, use and enjoy the built environment, regardless of whether it is a park or a public house.

Legislative drivers for change

Despite the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act and requires employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, it’s important for businesses to understand that the legal duties towards disabled people which are placed upon employers differs fundamentally from those placed on service providers. The employer has a duty to meet the needs of disabled employees, whereas in service provision, by contrast, there is a legal duty to take measures to meet the reasonable needs of potential building users.

Also important to consider, is that barriers to inclusion can take several forms beyond the ‘physical’ environment, including access to information, communication, management policies and procedures and attitudes to functionality. It requires organisational commitment and in some cases, a cultural change.

Now is the time to address this issue, and we believe that adhering to the ‘basic’ levels of practice set out by the law is not enough. Particularly given that, quite surprisingly, there is currently no structured ‘policy’ in place within the retail sector when it comes to customer experience and satisfaction, of which inclusiveness of disabled individuals would no doubt form a hugely significant part.

Leading the way in the UK

Earlier this year, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Minister of State for Disabled People, Mark Harper MP, welcomed a new professional standard launched by BIFM for improving and maintaining accessibility and inclusion for disabled people in the built environment. The standard stems from the Built Environment Professional Education Project (BEPE), an initiative announced by Government and the Mayor aimed at improving accessibility following the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, Greater London Authority and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it is a 5-year project and forms part of the 10 year Olympic legacy programme to realise lasting change, which includes championing inclusive design.

There is no short cut to making this happen. The responsibility lies not just within the retail sector, but UK business more broadly, and we only have a chance of successfully achieving a truly inclusive approach if we get the firm commitment that is currently lacking from businesses of all sizes. Those businesses who fail to act run the risk of missing an important trick and alienating an important market.

Disabled customers should be able to obtain goods and receive services in the same way as other customers who are not disabled. The UK should be leading the way, setting a positive example and sending an important message to the rest of the world. Small changes can lead to big improvements, not just for customer experience, but for the bottom line of UK business and, essentially, the wider economy.

For further information on BIFM visit www.bifm.org.uk

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