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High street shops still lacking accessibility for wheelchairs

Despite the Equality Act placing a duty on shops to make reasonable adjustments to ensure their services are accessible, wheelchair users are still being denied access. Now, as lockdown restrictions are eased and businesses scramble to get back on track, it’s revealed that “retailers that have reopened could be excluding as many as one in five customers that have disabilities.”

Legal requirements for disabled access

The Equality Act 2010 protects the rights of people with disabilities in having access to everyday services, like local shops, hair salons, banks, pubs and restaurants etc. By law, service providers have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their premises and the way they deliver their services to ensure that people with disabilities can use them.

Examples of reasonable adjustments include more than just wheelchair ramps or widened doorways – it can mean improving signage for those with impaired vision, installing an induction loop for those who are hearing impaired or providing disability awareness training for staff. Sadly, many businesses still don’t even have wheelchair accessible premises – meaning they are falling short of their duty to provide inclusive services.

Wheelchair accessibility while shopping

While it’s true that some wheelchairs can be tilted to allow access up a low step, electric wheelchairs are too heavy to tilt – meaning users cannot enter. Essentially, this excludes independent electric wheelchair users from entering shops, restaurants, cafés and more.

Accessibility during the Coronavirus lockdown

The scramble to reopen shops provides a prime example of how business owners need to readdress their way of thinking and overall approach to accessibility. Inclusivity should not be an afterthought.

Covid-19 has come with its own set of challenges for business owners. Customer safety is paramount but maintaining an accessible and inclusive space for your customers who have disabilities is equally important. And while many of the safety measures put in place by shops have likely helped to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, they’ve also made it more difficult to navigate shops as a wheelchair user.

Take for instance, the two-metre distancing rule. It’s a sensible precaution to help slow the spread of Covid-19, yet the way it’s enforced proves that accessibility was not fully considered. Floor markings to keep people distanced isn’t an effective method for those with sight impairments.

Many shops and supermarkets introduced a one-way system. Smaller shops can already be quite difficult to navigate in a powerchair but keeping within even smaller marked out lanes to ensure you’re distanced from other customers can feel almost impossible.

Leading supermarkets also limited the number of customers able to go in at one time – a sensible precaution to help keep people socially distanced. But this also resulted in queues that stretched for hundreds of metres and while public toilets were closed, extended waiting times at shops posed yet another challenge for those who rely on accessible toilets.

All these factors made for a more challenging shopping experience for independent wheelchair users, worsened still by the uncertainty around whether toilets would be reopening as lockdown eased and non-essential shops reopened. While the government has provided some guidance on the safety measures to take when reopening public toilets, there has been no clear answer to whether businesses were required to make toilets accessible again.

While some customers may call ahead to check on toilet accessibility before venturing out to shops, others “feel they cannot leave their homes for shopping or other day to day tasks if they do not know that a toilet is available.”

High street shops lose £267 million due to lack of accessibility

Business owners need to address the way they consider accessibility and ensure inclusivity is an integral element when they look to improve on customer experience. Businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people, with 75% of disabled people and their families turning their backs on UK businesses because of poor accessibility or customer service.

It’s estimated that high street shops alone lose out on £267 million by failing to make their services accessible, and a further £163 million for inaccessible restaurants, pubs and clubs. It’s in the best interests of business owners to address these failings and to start approaching business decisions with all of their customers in mind.

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