How to make sure your business is accessible for all

  1. Wheelchair ramp sign
    Tracey Proudlock

    Tracey Proudlock UKBF Newcomer Full Member

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    The much-publicised Paulley vs First Group case, where a wheelchair user was denied access to a bus because the wheelchair space was already occupied by a sleeping child in a buggy, was heard in the Supreme Court last month.

    The case highlights the disconnect between businesses and disabled consumers in the UK, where some companies, particularly smaller organisations with limited resources, can struggle to cater for the needs of disabled customers. It also shows how a complaint from a disabled customer can spiral out of all control when not handled effectively.

    Businesses have taken great strides in recent years to give disabled customers an improved experience, but when things go wrong, many still don’t know how to best deal with the fallout. This is often because they don’t have practical policies and procedures in place. Staff members may have received little or no training and therefore do not consider the customer experience from the perspective of a disabled person.

    We believe the majority of complaints can be resolved quickly and efficiently without the need for litigation, which is rarely a satisfactory outcome for either party, regardless of the result. To this aim, Proudlock Associates has launched Resolve, a unique new business service to help companies work with disabled complainants.

    With the so-called ’purple pound’ worth around £221bn in the UK alone, giving disabled customers the service they deserve isn’t merely the right thing to do, it makes great business sense.

    There are more than 11 million people with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness and the needs of these people may not be immediately evident – not everyone is in a wheelchair! For businesses, this means planning for a broad range of needs.

    The following checklist is a starting point for working out how accessible your premises are for disabled customers. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point for ensuring your business is open to everyone.

    1. Approaching and entering

    • Parking: Be prepared to either reserve parking spaces or have designated ‘disabled bays’ wherever possible and make sure your parking policy isn’t abused. Be clear about where the nearest car parking for blue badge holders is in relation to your premises – ‘five-minute walk’ is not a useful guide
    • Signage: Make the name and number of the premises clearly visible
    • Entrance: Ensure the bell or intercom is accessible with an audible and visual indication. An automatic door is usually best practice. If the door isn’t at street level, provide an alternative entrance to make your business accessible to all users

    2. Moving around

    Remove clutter to create wide aisles and ensure floors are not slippery or smooth and avoid long pile carpets, which can restrict mobility.   

    Consider using simple visual or pictorial symbols in addition to words for internal signage.

    Try to provide adjustable lighting levels for example by turning off individual overheads when required or by supplementing where necessary with extra task lights. Avoid glare, especially from direct views of lamps or from indirect sources such as highly reflective finishes on walls, floors, tabletops and uncovered windows.

    3. The customer experience

    Consider disability awareness training for all staff to improve confidence. Think about the way you interact with disabled customers. For example:

    • Always talk directly to the disabled person, not a companion
    • You may need to allow more time for discussions when communicating with someone with a learning disability or through a sign language interpreter
    • If you do not use sign language have paper and pens available for exchanging notes
    • Offer an escorted tour or guide around your property or business for someone who is visually impaired so they can familiarise themselves with the building
    • Try to provide all key facilities on the ground floor
    • Place popular literature and information on a waist-height shelf
    • Provide clipboards or lap trays for people to sign documents more easily
    • Where possible and appropriate, depending on the nature of your business, provide an accessible bathroom or be able to direct customers to the nearest facilities

    4. Dealing with complaints

    A positive attitude about access can make all the difference; the way you respond and make ‘reasonable adjustments’ is critical and can prevent potential issues. 

    If someone does complain respond quickly, investigate and let them see you’re taking their complaint seriously. Listen and get feedback about what didn’t work for them.

    Try and identify potential issues before they become a customer complaint. Get feedback from disabled customers about their experience of your business – find out what they think is good and where there is room for improvement so that you can enhance the customer experience even further and reduce the risk of complaints in the future.

    Ultimately, small businesses should have nothing to fear from the challenge of meeting disabled customer needs. Get the basics right and your retail or hospitality business will be welcoming the purple pound for many years to come.