8 ways to make your small business more disability aware

Being aware of the needs of the disabled isn’t just good business sense, it’s good for your business as a whole

With lockdown measures easing, many small businesses are busy preparing to welcome back customers over the coming months. With social contact restrictions still in place, however, it won’t quite be “business as normal.” Businesses will need to think creatively about how they entice customers.

Enticing old customers

Premises will still need to meet strict Covid-safe conditions when they reopen but it’s a start, and customers are just as excited to be back – and spending their money again – as businesses are to serve them.

The Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, which ran in August 2020, may have had its critics, but the huge rise in table reservations – a 53 per cent increase on the same period in 2019 – shows the eagerness of the public to get back to purchasing goods and services again.

There is a lot of lost time to make up for and businesses will need to think creatively about how to entice back old customers to their premises and services, whilst attracting in new customer groups, as well.

>See also: What are the benefits of agile working? – a small business guide

Attracting disabled customers

Disabled customers are a group most often overlooked and misunderstood. Most people think of wheelchair users when they think about disability access. In fact, less than 8 per cent of the disabled community use a wheelchair in the UK. The vast number of disabilities – over 90 per cent – are non-visible. These include people with learning disabilities, sensory impairments and mental health conditions, as well as people with neurodiverse conditions such as autism and dyslexia.

All businesses have a duty to make their products and services accessible to disabled people under the Equality Act (2010). But getting accessibility right and being disability aware isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.

The annual spending power of disabled people and their families is estimated to be worth around £274bn in the UK alone, and rising.

Many small business owners will, understandably, be reluctant to increase their costs just as we reopen, but there are many cost-free things your business can do immediately to become more accessible to disabled customers.

8 ways to make your small business more disability aware

#1 – Offer a choice of ways to contact you

Always give customers a choice on how to contact your business. This will help customers who face barriers using one method, overcome this by using another. For example, someone who faces difficulties communicating over the phone due to a hearing impairment, would be able to contact your business by email, or via text for the same query. By offering alternative contact methods, it increases the accessibility of your business and means disabled customers are less likely to go elsewhere.

#2 – Make customers aware that you offer accessibility

Promote the good work you do to make your business accessible. Let disabled customers know that you are committed to making their shopping experience better via inclusivity statements on your website, feature disabled people in your imagery, and make your commitment to accessibility more visible on your branding, products and services. This lets disabled customers know you’ve considered them, and that they can feel comfortable to discuss their requirements.

‘It is likely that at least one in five of your customers will have a disability’

#3 – Never assume the existence or absence of a disability

It is likely that at least one in five of your customers will have a disability and many will have a disability that is not immediately visible. Just the simple question “Can I help with anything?” can encourage the customer to tell you what they need. Don’t be embarrassed about saying or doing the wrong thing; some disabled customers may not feel confident asking for help and welcome proactive customer service. Always be on the lookout for people who may need extra assistance and offer help regardless of whether or not you think the person has a disability.

>See also: How to tell your staff they’re working reduced hours

#4 – Be (assistant) pet friendly

Grant access to assistance and therapy dogs. Assistance and therapy dogs provide vital support to a wide range of disabled people and people with long-term conditions.  You can pick up an ‘Assistance Dogs Welcome’ sign for as little as £3, opening your doors to customers with visual impairments.

#5 – Make customers feel safe

There has been a lot of miscommunication in the media around Covid-19 and disability. Not everyone who has a disability will be more susceptible to Covid, but over half of the people who have died from the disease were disabled.

Creating environments where customers feel safe and know their needs are being considered is important. You can help make the shopping experience safer, and make disabled customers feel more at ease, by continuing some of the preventative measures implemented throughout the pandemic. These include hand sanitiser stations, distancing when queuing to pay for goods, and contactless delivery of goods.

#6 – Be patient and give customers extra time to complete tasks

Some people may need extra time paying for goods or completing a form. Always be patient and never rush the customer, even if other customers are waiting.

#7 – Be ready to help your customers take their shopping home

Always have local public transport information available, including numbers of accessible taxis. It is likely your customer has already thought about this, but it’s always helpful to have these details to hand just in case.

#8 – Being disability aware benefits everyone

Businesses who are disability aware know that it is not just for the benefit of disabled customers, it helps everyone and ultimately, getting accessibility right is great for business.  For example, not only do access ramps help wheelchair users, they also help parents with buggies. Good customer service practices such as asking customers if they need help doesn’t just give disabled customers the opportunity to discuss their requirements, it lets all your customers know that you want to listen and support them.

Parma Sira is small business disability adviser for Smarter London SMEs

Further reading

How do I manage an employee with Long Covid?