When the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced back in 1995 it imposed a legal obligation on businesses to make their premises and services more accessible to disabled people. The Act has now been replaced by similar but expanded provisions in the Equality Act 2010 which requires equality of access to services for disabled people.
Whilst the majority of buildings are now accessible to the disabled there are still some that aren’t. It is very demeaning for someone in a wheelchair to suddenly find that they can’t get into a restaurant or a toilet, for example.
If you still have access issues then how much longer can you afford to continue to ignore the disabled? Aside from the threat of legal action with all the inherent costs, there is clearly a strong business case for making services easier for the country’s 8.5 million disabled people who have an estimated spending power of £2 billion.
Grab Good Publicity
If you are accessible for the disabled then why not publicise the fact and boost your business as a result.
Fiona Jarvis of Blue Badge Style, an organisation for the discerning less able, believes that hotels and pubs are missing a valuable trick in not advertising their accessibility to function rooms, toilets etc. She believes that a clear accessibility statement posted on an operator’s website can be a very effective marketing tool. Accessibility is far more wide ranging than ramps for wheelchair users and covers all aspects of making your service accessible – for example braille menus or hearing loops might need to be considered.
The British Beer and Pub Association has produced a guidance note entitled “Why it is good for pubs to create an access statement”. This provides practical guidance on why and how to create an access statement and has a link to an online template.
Avoid Bad Publicity
As well as creating business by being accessible, it is important to avoid bad publicity from failing to accommodate the disabled. In a recent case an Inverness restaurant was criticised on Facebook and other social media by the niece of a Downs’ Syndrome man whom the restaurant refused to serve with a children’s portion of fish and chips. The criticism led to bad reviews on Trip Advisor. The restaurant’s justification was that it could not process the order as a promotion on that day meant children’s food was free. Consequently the till couldn’t accept the order and without a till receipt the kitchen could not prepare the meal.
Requirements of the Equality Act
Who has a disability?
The Equality Act sets out 7 protected characteristics of which “disability” is one. A person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The Act also gives protection to those who had a disability in the past, those who are mistakenly perceived to have a disability and those associated with a disabled person – e.g. the mother of a disabled child.
Far more people than you think will be covered by the definition of ‘disability’ and it is certainly not just those in wheelchairs or with blue badges in their cars. Government research shows that one in five people of working age are disabled. People whose mobility, sight, hearing, dexterity, co-ordination or memory is impaired are all covered. Examples of those who may be covered by the definition include people with cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart conditions, people with mental health conditions and facial disfigurements.
The Equality Act prohibits direct and indirect disability discrimination, discrimination arising from a disability and harassment. It also requires reasonable adjustments to be made to premises and services.
Reasonable adjustments: 3 requirements
As a service provider you must make changes, where needed to improve your service for disabled customers, so that they are not at a substantial disadvantage compared with the non-disabled. Positive steps, which go beyond the obligation to avoid discrimination, must be taken to ensure they can access your service, so as far as reasonably practicable it is as accessible to the disabled as it is to the non-disabled.
You are required to look at:
- 1. The way the service is provided – for example, a restaurant that requires all diners to wear a tie may need to make an exception for a guest with severe psoriasis which makes it too uncomfortable for him to be able to wear a tie.
- 2. The physical features of the premises including signage, entrances and exits, car parking areas, internal and external doors, bar counters, tables etc. If a physical feature disadvantages a disabled person you will need to take steps to remove it, alter it, provide a reasonable means of avoiding it or provide the service in a different way.
- 3. The requirement to provide extra aids and services to enable a disabled person to use your service. For example, produce a menu in Braille or offer to read it out to a partially sighted diner; have a portable induction loop available at reception for use by deaf customers.
What is reasonable?
What is regarded as a “reasonable” adjustment to make will depend on your size and resources, the cost of making the adjustments and how the adjustment might benefit other customers. Not all adjustments involve major and expensive building work. There are many adjustments to your premises which are not expensive and which can be relatively easily made. For example consider:
- replacing round door knobs, which may be difficult for those with limited mobility to grip
- putting mirrors and coat hooks at lower levels in disabled toilet
- clearly marking the entrance to the pub
- clearly marking out a disabled parking bay closest to the door
- full height glass doors enable wheelchair users to see someone approaching from the other side.
You should consider how you can make your services easier for disabled people to use. These changes need not have major cost implications. For example:
- permit entry to those with guide dogs – Environmental health have granted an exemption for guide dogs from the usual rules relating to dogs and food preparation
- staff should be ready to assist disabled customers in accessing the premises and to find a suitable table
- when furniture is replaced consider buying furniture that is easily moved and which allows adequate height and clearance underneath
- staff should offer to read the menu to customers who are visually impaired
- menus written on blackboards should be easy to read (a combination of capitals and lower case letters being preferable) and a few paper copies of the menu should also be available for those who have difficulties
- staff may need to converse with the deaf by the exchange of written notes
- put up signs saying table service is available as an alternative to counter service which can be difficult for the disabled if counters are high or food is displayed in raised cabinets.
What might it cost if you ignore your obligations?
Someone who has been discriminated against on the grounds of their disability can bring a civil action in the County Court and claim damages for injury to feelings. There is NO limit on the amount of damages that can be awarded. The court can also grant an injunction to prevent future discrimination. You could also be ordered to change a policy or make a reasonable adjustment. You will also end up paying both your legal costs and those of the victim if you lose your case in Court.
What to do next?
An access audit is the best way to identify problems which the disabled may have accessing services at a particular outlet. The resulting report, including estimates, will enable you to draw up an improvement programme. This is strongly advisable before any major refurbishment work is undertaken. Contact the National Register of Access Consultants (NRAC)
Draw up an Access Statement and post it on your website so that disabled people can check this before they visit your premises.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced various guides which cover not just equality for the disabled but all equality laws:
- Guidance for service providers – what Equality Law means for your business – specific section covering the particular issues which may arise for hotels, restaurants, cafes and pubs
- Code of Practice on how the Equality Act2 2010 applies to services, public functions and Associations.
- Guidance for hotels, restaurants, cafes and pubs
For any questions arising from this article, please contact Leo Skinner at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on +44 (0) 345 271 6755
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.