A step too far: how retailers are losing disabled customers

Philippa Willitts explains why many shops are inadvertently turning away millions of customers

Updated: 
A step too far

This article was written by Philippa Willitts, pictured above

Picture the scene: it's the January sales and you traipse from shop to shop, fighting the crowds to grab the best bargains you can find. Then, one store simply will not let you in; the security guard on the door bans you from entering, and you have to go elsewhere.

Next, you go out for a meal with friends. The food is great and wine is flowing. Then, you try to go to the loo and a member of staff blocks your way. All your friends can go to the bathroom but you are told you are not allowed in there. You spend the rest of the evening uncomfortable, desperate to get home.

Later that week, after a taxing day at work, you go out for drinks with your work colleagues. A staff member lets all your friends in but tells you that, sorry, you can't join them. Not wanting to make a fuss, you make your excuses and go home.

I'm one of 12 million disabled Brits, and this is what life can really be like.

A recent study by DisabledGo has revealed what those of us who are disabled have known for years: British high streets are horribly inaccessible. I have lost count of the number of invites I have politely declined because the venue is up a flight of stairs, and the number of shops and cafes that I always avoid because, even if I can get into the building, it might be impossible to move around or get to the part of the shop I need.

Some shop assistants are really helpful, bringing items down from other floors if there's no lift or offering to reach products on high shelves, but it is difficult to avoid feeling like you're imposing, and it can feel humiliating to have to ask for help like this anyway.

Plus, in busy periods, many simply do not have the time it can take to assist a disabled customer. The key point is that we shouldn't need to rely on there being a particularly helpful member of staff on shift when we go somewhere, we should be able to access all areas in a venue without a fuss.

We have some control over the accessibility of our homes and we have certain rights regarding the accessibility of our workplaces, but setting out to go shopping can be extra stressful because we just don't know which shops and cafes we will be able to get into. A study by campaign group Trailblazers reported that 1/3 of young, disabled people felt they were not able to spontaneously take a trip into their local towns and cities for this very reason.

I often try to find accessibility information in advance but, as the DisabledGo research also identified, the vast majority of businesses do not provide this information on their websites.

Phoning the venue to find out more is also often fruitless, especially for huge chain stores that redirect all calls to a central call centre where the staff do not know accessibility details of the local branches.

Online resources such as Euan's Guide – where premises are reviewed by disabled people - can provide really useful information in these situations, but they rely on user-submitted reports that cannot possibly cover every eventuality.

It is not only disabled people who benefit when premises are made accessible and information is easily available; parents with prams and older people often find it tricky to make their way around towns and cities, too. When a new mum has to navigate their familiar town centre with a buggy or pushchair, it is often the first time they realise how limiting it is to be faced with narrow aisles, tall flights of stairs, a lack of automatic doors, and restaurants with tables pushed so closely together that it is impossible to squeeze between them.

Some companies do make a real effort but the problems, overall, are really significant. DisabledGo's survey found that less than 1/3 of department stores have accessible changing rooms, 40% of restaurants have no accessible toilet, and 2/3 of retail staff have received no training in how to help disabled customers. These are absolute basics, yet they are sadly lacking up and down the country. This is a situation that has to change.

The reluctance of some businesses to adapt their premises and practices is bewildering, really, considering the £212 billion spending power that disabled Brits are reported to have at their disposal. It's quite simple: if we can't get into your shop or restaurant, we will spend our money with your someone else instead.

As DisabledGo Chairman, Barry Stevenson, says: "Disabled people are not asking the earth – just that management do what's reasonable and think more about how they can help disabled customers better."

It doesn't need to cost a fortune to do the right thing – and it could be the deciding factor for disabled customers on where they shop.

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