Disability and discrimination: know the law

With just over 6 months until disability access laws come into effect, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is urging businesses to take action now.

Under new legislation, from 1 October 2004 all businesses, regardless of size, will have to become more user-friendly to the 8.6 million disabled people in Britain, a move that will affect over 2 million businesses.

Worryingly however, a recent survey found that almost three-quarters of disabled people find it difficult to get into shops or use services, with the two leading problems being steps at entrances and an inability to use disabled parking spaces. Furthermore, over two-thirds of friends and family of disabled people experiencing problems would consider using an alternative shop.

The legislation, which is part of the Disability Discrimination Act, states that “service providers may have to make reasonable adjustments in relation to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.”

It is the non-specific nature of the legislation that is causing businesses headaches, according to Sarah Langton-Lockton, chief executive of the Centre for Accessible Environments. “It is not saying you must do X, Y and Z, so you can’t sit back and say you have complied with the legislation.”

In an effort to help clarify to small businesses, particularly retailers, what they can do to comply, the DRC has produced an online computer game, Little Shop of Horrors, to illustrate barriers to access and changes that can be made to improve accessibility.

These include improving lighting at entrances, ensuring doorways are wide enough to admit wheelchairs, lowering shelves, making fire escapes accessible for all and changing labelling and signage to make it more readable.

This legislation comes on top of major discrimination laws, which came into effect last year. Since December 2003 it has been unlawful to discriminate in employment and vocational training on grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief. The laws protect workers from discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Discrimination and harassment have a damaging impact on people’s lives and can have a detrimental effect on business. Preventing discrimination and promoting equality and diversity can help employers attract, motivate and retain the best staff and access wider markets.

See also: 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

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