A recent government-backed audit of more than 30,000 businesses has revealed “unacceptable” levels of disabled access to high street shops and businesses. Off the back of the findings, Minister for Disabled people Mark Harper has called on the hospitality and retail industry to explore what more can be done to better cater for the needs of disabled people.

Gareth Tancred, Chief Executive at the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM), explains how FM and HR professionals can work together in addressing the shortfall in the creation of truly inclusive environments.

Impartial inclusiveness

An inclusive environment is one where a disabled person has the same experience as a non-disabled person. Despite the investment from businesses in improving accessibility over the last 10 years or so, this study is demonstrative that there is still a long way to go, and highlights the extent to which ensuring inclusive access remains a problem for many businesses.

At least 50 percent of disabilities are invisible. Combine this with the increased chance of disability on account of people living longer, and it’s evident that organisations need to anticipate the needs of individuals, even when they are not always ‘visible’ or apparent on the exterior.

Despite this, two in five food outlets in this study had no accessible toilet, more than nine in 10 (91%) of retail firms gave no accessibility information on their websites, and two thirds of shop staff had no training in helping to cater for disabled customers. It begs the question as to who is ultimately losing out, given that the estimated spend by disabled people during Christmas was expected to be around £200bn.

In it together

Unfortunately, the problem of accessibility and inclusion is not confined to the retail sector. As the professional body for facilities management, we recognise how widespread this issue is, and the significant role that facilities managers play at being at the forefront of making their buildings accessible to all. However, workplace conditions are vital for accessibility, and this is where FM and HR can play a fundamental role in challenging such an important problem.

Legislative drivers for change

Everyone should be able to access services independently, and have equal opportunity to enter, use and enjoy the same experiences, whether it’s in a park or a public house. Despite the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act and requires employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, businesses need to understand the differences and legal duties towards disabled people. Those required of employers differ from those placed on service providers, namely because in service provision, there is a legal duty to take measures to meet the reasonable demands of potential building users in contrast to employers whose obligation is to meet the needs of disabled employees.

Another important consideration is that barriers to inclusion can take several forms beyond the ‘physical’ environment, including access to information, communication, management policies and procedures and attitudes to functionality. It requires organisational commitment and in some cases, a cultural change.

At BIFM, we believe that adhering to the ‘basic’ levels of practice set out by the law is not enough. Particularly given that, quite surprisingly, there is currently no structured ‘policy’ in place within the retail sector when it comes to customer experience and satisfaction, of which inclusiveness of disabled individuals would no doubt form a hugely significant part.

The power of personnel

Small changes can lead to big outcomes, and there are significant and cost-effective ways that businesses can approach the issue of accessibility. It has been 20 years since the Disability Act was introduced, and for HR professionals, unquestionably, company culture and training and investment of staff is paramount in terms of ensuring that the requirements of the 21st century consumer are being met. There is a reason why the phrase ‘a business is only as good as its employees’ resonates so well.

Another significant element is ensuring the development of internal policies which not only meet the requirements of legislation, but which go beyond that and actively promote inclusiveness in every aspect of business operations, regardless of sector or company size. Ultimately, it is about creating a company culture with inclusive access at the heart of it.

Leading the way in the UK

There is no shortcut to making this happen. The responsibility lies not just within the retail sector, but UK business more broadly, and we only have a chance of successfully achieving a truly inclusive approach if we get the firm commitment that is currently lacking from businesses of all sizes. Those businesses who fail to act run the risk of missing an important trick and alienating an important market. Disabled customers should be able to obtain goods and receive services in the same way as other customers who are not disabled. The UK should be leading the way, setting a positive example and sending an important message to the rest of the world. Small changes can lead to big improvements, not just for customer experience, but for the bottom line of UK business and, essentially, the wider economy. With those responsible for ‘place’ and ‘people’ working together we can create the inclusive environments that are needed to make a real difference.

For further information on BIFM visit www.bifm.org.uk