The Equality Act (which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act) affects the way you treat your staff, job applicants and customers. Under the Equality Act, small and medium-sized businesses have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so they do not discriminate against disabled customers.
The law has been designed so that you only have to make reasonable changes, but if you fail to do what is reasonable, a disabled person could take legal action against you for treating them unfairly. It could be based on a policy or a one-off action.
What is ‘reasonable’ for my business?
- Type of business
- Annual turnover
- Cost of the adjustment
- Disruption to the business while the work is being carried out
- Practicality of carrying out the adjustment
- Potential benefits to disabled customers
What is reasonable depends on a number of factors, including the resources available to the organisation making the adjustment.
The Equality Act states that you must not treat disabled customers unfairly, no matter what size your company is. If your organisation is not accessible to disabled people, you could be missing out on a lot of potential customers.
“The ability to acknowledge the difference as a whole and accept that there’s not a quick fix. Just apply the concept of human interaction that you use with other individuals,” said Liz Johnson, former Paralympic swimmer and founder of The Ability People.
She also points out that it’s important to challenge your unconscious bias with disabled customers. This means not making assumptions and acknowledging that there’s a range of difference within disabilities. For example, a partially sighted person may only have slightly impaired vision rather than someone who greatly struggles to see.
There are many practical things you can do too. Some changes don’t cost very much, such as providing a seat for people who have mobility impairments and cannot stand for very long. If you are unsure how you can assist a disabled person, you should consider asking them what you can do to help.
Here are some of the things to consider.
Accessing your information
– Are signs and labels short and easy to read?
– Do you have different versions of customer information? For example: leaflets, brochures, menus
– Can people contact your business in different ways? For example: by phone, email or chat bot/instant messenger
– Is your website accessible? What about your app? Not all features move from your website to your app. Some disabled people have built in accessibility software already on their devices that they implemented, so it’s worth checking if your app is compatible.
Accessing your premises
– Is there somewhere to sit down if customers have to queue or wait?
– Are all key facilities on the main floor? Are popular products on a mid-height shelf? Would disabled customers be able to order on an in-store tablet or free-standing screen?
– Is it easy for visually impaired people to see everything they need to?
– Is there level access into and inside your premises? This means no steps, steep slopes or lips on doorways.
– If there are steps, can you fit a ramp or install a lift so disabled people can get in?
– Can you install a bell or buzzer outside and go out to disabled customers when they ring?
– Are door handles easy to grip and easy to reach for wheelchair users?
– Are corridors and aisles clear of obstructions for a wheelchair to pass through?
– Do your staff know how to assist disabled people in an emergency?
– If you normally prohibit animals, you should consider relaxing this for assistance dogs. Remember, it is not just visually impaired people who use assistance dogs.
– Are staff trained to give assistance if people ask?
If you can’t make adjustments like these for a disabled person, you must consider whether there are other ways of providing an equivalent service to customers, such as online access to your products or service or even home delivery.
Getting it right first time
Liz Johnson says that factoring in accessibility during your initial design or your redesign will save you money in the longer term.
“It’s about the consultation phase, making sure all of your customer base, client base, employee base or prospective base of any of those demographics have representation,” she said.
She added that when people look at diversity and inclusion, they tend to target a certain group at a time to help and that’s where the costs come in. Measures may not be as effective as you first hoped.
One example would be installing a lift that you get in and hold the button to move the lift. This could be disadvantageous to a wheelchair user who doesn’t have full function of their arms. They might not be able to generate enough strength to hold that button the whole way through, or they might not be able to get their hand in the position that needs to be in to press that button.
“The biggest thing to remember is that 70 per cent of disabilities are invisible. This is why representation at the planning stage, and at every stage, you need representation of someone who can advocate for those differences, whatever they are,” she said. Groups like The Ability People can work with organisations on things like environmental assessments and building design.
Another aspect to get right early on is staff training. Johnson advises training that encourages employees to look for difference and treat every individual with empathy. “It’s definitely important that organisations, whatever their size and shape, should empower employees by removing the element of fear through education and exposure,” she said. “That’s the block. A lot of people don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they don’t do anything. Or they they’re so concerned about doing the wrong thing that they overthink what they’re saying, and they absolutely say the wrong thing.”
She recommends a workshop programme of inclusion awareness, where staff get a safe space to explore the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ the ‘whats’, of what different looks like. This can help employees break thought cycles based on preconceptions or previous experiences, applying different disabilities to real world scenarios. “These workshops shouldn’t be seen as a D&I (diversity and inclusion) project, they should be seen as a learning and development project,” said Johnson.
Case study: Tom Hughes, digital manager at Coast Road Furniture
Coast Road Furniture introduced a mobility range when the business changed from a carpet shop into a furniture shop during the 1970s. Tom Hughes tells SmallBusiness.co.uk why the mobility range is beneficial to the firm.
A lot of our suppliers do mobility furniture. So you’ve got the lift and tilt chairs and the beds which do the same. The way our shop is designed, it’s quite long and shallow with quite a lot of shopfront so it means we can get easy access and people can park right outside the shop. The mobility range is all on the ground floor, as close to a door as possible.
We also sell home furniture, so a lot of customers have come to us to get a full set. They want to get a three-piece suite, with armchairs and the mobility furniture to match for guests or family members. As we do carpets as well, if they’re looking to renovate the entire room, they often come to us to we can minimise the hassle of multiple companies coming to their home.
Mobility furniture does cost more on the whole. They have long guarantees because if they go wrong, it can be catastrophic. So, they have to be designed with things like battery backup or backup systems. That adds expense. With the 20 per cent VAT taken off it does save quite a lot. As you (the customer) don’t pay VAT and as a company, we don’t have to pay the VAT, because that’s all that part of sales. So in some ways, the mark-up on mobility furniture can be slightly higher.
We rarely get problems with it, because the furniture is made to a very high standard. It’s a good product which is reliable and well-made and it’s British made, which pleases quite a lot of the customer base. It’s definitely a positive part of the business.
Find out more about the Equality Act
The Equality Act falls under the remit of the Government’s Department for Work and Pensions, which provides information and support for employers through Disability Employment Advisers based in its network of Jobcentre Plus offices and Jobcentres.
For more information about employing disabled people, visit the Disability Services for Employers section of the .gov.uk website.
8 ways to make your small business more disability aware