The commercial benefits of disability discrimination law
Most businesses, as employers, will know that they cannot discriminate against employees or prospective employees who have a disability. But how many businesses are aware of their legal obligation to avoid discriminating against customers, and the potential business that they are losing out on if they do?
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination by those who provide goods, services or facilities to the public and applies to sole traders and large international corporations alike.
The prohibition includes a duty to take positive steps to avoid discrimination. Three requirements are placed upon businesses:
- to change business practices;
- to change a physical feature; and
- to provide an auxiliary aid.
Businesses should take reasonable steps to make these changes if failure to do so would put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage.
Changing business practice could involve, for example, providing information in an accessible format such as large print for those with impaired vision. The duty to change a physical feature may require the removal or alteration of a physical feature, or providing a reasonable way to avoid it such as ramped access to a building with stairs for the benefit of wheelchair users. Handrails and hearing loops (which allow microphone signals to be picked up via standard hearing aid settings) are examples of an auxiliary aid.
Before business owners become overly concerned by the potential financial implications of these requirements, they should bear in mind that the key phrases in the legislation are: ‘substantial disadvantage’ and ‘reasonable steps’. ‘Substantial’ means more than minor or trivial. Businesses are not required to act on every single difficulty that disabilities may present. Whether a step is ‘reasonable’ depends on how effective it is, whether it is possible, its cost, and the size and resources of the organisation. It may be reasonable, for example, to provide an internet service rather than install a ramp in an old building.
Businesses should note that these duties are owed to disabled people in general. Reasonable adjustments should be made in anticipation of disabled customers, whether or not you have had any before.
The Department for Work and Pensions has estimated that the market for those with disabilities is worth approximately £200 billion so, as important as it is to comply with legal duties, accommodating disabled customers should be viewed as a sensible commercial decision as much as it is a legal one.
17 January 2015 saw the first Disabled Access Day, with the likes of Café Nero and London’s National Theatre encouraging access to and use of their services.
In a recent interview with BBC Breakfast, Dr. Gregory Burke – a barrister and founder of www.disabledgo.com, with whom we have worked before – highlighted some of the commercial issues around disability. He said that there exists generally a fundamental misconception that “disability” is limited to being confined to a wheelchair. Businesses therefore need to consider the wide range of challenges disabled service users may face. He said that aside from their own spending power, disabled people also influence the spending of friends, family and carers (who are all going to avoid eating at a restaurant if one in their party doesn’t have access to the necessary facilities). Dr. Burke also said that it is vital for businesses that are fulfilling their legal duties to properly communicate this so that customers know where to go.
Adherence to the law undoubtedly requires careful thought, however it is clear that many businesses are currently failing to consider the potential benefits of its full application, whether they are meeting their strict legal duties or not.