When 51-year-old Sheila Walker went into a c-store to buy a newspaper in April this year, the last thing she expected was to be turfed out because she had a hearing dog with her. But that was exactly what happened, despite Sheila's attempts to explain her situation. The store manager later apologised, claiming that his staff were unable to see the dog properly over the high counter and didn't realise that it was a hearing dog. But the incident raises serious questions about disability awareness within c-stores.

"Assistance dogs aren't always labradors," explains Gemma Walton, spokeswoman for charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. "We train lots of different breeds to become hearing dogs and retailers should be aware of this. It is also against the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) to stop assistance dogs entering a store."

Katie MacDonald, training and consultancy manager at deaf and hard of hearing disability charity RNID, says: "There are retailers who aren't aware of disabilities in general, or how to communicate with disabled people. It's not a luxury for deaf people to be able to buy a pint of milk it's a right."

Roger Dicker, who owns Kentford Village Stores, near Newmarket, Suffolk, is quick to come to c-stores' defence, claiming that retailers are most certainly supportive of disabled people's needs. "There isn't a shopkeeper out there who doesn't speak more clearly if someone has a hearing disability, or help them write a form if they have difficulties," he says.

However, even though retailers may have good intentions, Roger concedes that some situations can be tricky to handle. "Often people don't set out to be mean to a disabled person they might just misunderstand the situation and say something stupid."

Vigilance pays

Ian Carter, operations manager at disability equipment directory the Good Access Guide, says it's really a case of being alert to situations. "It isn't up to the disabled person to make retailers aware of 'invisible' disabilities, such as deafness or learning difficulties," he says.

"If you are having problems communicating with a customer, then you must take into consideration that it may be because they have a disability. For example, they might not be slurring because they're drunk, it could be a speech impediment. You can't take everything at face value."

Carter also claims that it's okay to ask people questions if you are unsure of their circumstances. "With the case of the deaf woman who was told to leave the c-store, the shop assistant could have just asked her about the dog," he says. "The cashier should have said: 'I haven't seen a dog like that before, is it an assistance dog?'"

Follow a similar tactic if you are unsure of whether a customer needs assistance. "Don't force your help on people just ask," Carter advises.

Michael Wordingham takes this approach at his Peterborough-based Exeter Road Post Office & Newsagent. "If you see someone having difficulties then offer to help. Don't just dive in and try to take over," he says. "If people don't want your help, you can at least just steer them in the right direction, but without being intrusive."

Joe Williams, manager at the Village Shop (Select & Save) in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, also has the right idea. "We try to let disabled people get on with their shopping the same as anyone else," he says. "Sometimes we have people on mobility scooters who are very independent, so we approach people to offer help only if they are struggling."

While staff are never overbearing, they are always willing to make an extra effort when necessary. "We have a number of customers with disabilities, including a gentleman in his 60s who is deaf and non-verbal," says Joe. "One employee is fluent in sign language, and now all of our staff have started to pick up bits and pieces and are able to hold conversations with him. People are automatically aware of what he might need. For example, everyone knows that he always buys a newspaper at the weekends and a lottery ticket."

In addition to the small personal touches that make a disabled person's shopping experience easier, there are also physical barriers to be considered. Stores must adhere to the DDA's requirement to make 'reasonable adjustments' to accommodate disabled people.

The mere mention of 'reasonable adjustments' can make many retailers break out into a cold sweat as they worry about expensive store alterations such as widening aisles and installing wheelchair ramps.

But the Good Access Guide's Carter claims that you don't need to break the bank to comply with the DDA. "No one would expect a small store to put in a ramp to replace steps, or widen their doors, if it was going to put them back thousands of pounds," he says. "But c-stores must be seen to have made reasonable adjustments. It can just be small changes, such as not leaving boxes in the aisle or, perhaps, having a call point at the store entrance so that someone in a wheelchair can ask for assistance."

There are plenty of easy measures that retailers can put in place to make life a little easier for people with disabilities, he continues. "DDA kits are available from mobility suppliers. They cost about £40 and contain items such as pens with large grips for people who have difficulty writing and a magnifying sheet so that people can read text more clearly if their eyesight is poor. Tools such as these can make a big difference."

Michael has made reasonable adjustments by having a hearing loop fitted in his post office. "We have many disabled people coming in to collect their disability benefits, so it's important that these people are able to use our services," he points out.

Meanwhile, Joe's Village Shop has found a novel way to show support for the disabled community. "There is an assistance dogs training charity, Dogs for the Disabled, nearby in Banbury," explains Joe. "We have a charity box to raise funds for the organisation and we also let members come in with puppies-in-training, so that they can familiarise themselves with a store environment."

Train to gain

Sending staff on disability awareness training is another way for convenience retailers to better equip them with the tools to meet disabled customers' needs. "The best thing a retailer can do is go on deaf and disability awareness training (DDAT)," says the RNID's MacDonald. "It's a big tick in their diversity box."

A full day course of DDAT for 16 people costs £850, while a training access point event costs £85 per person for half a day. However, the take-up among c-store retailers isn't high. "We don't get many c-stores asking for training," claims MacDonald. "It's a big problem for us as we have a good relationship with the multiple retailers, but nothing with impulse."

Carter believes that this is largely because training outside the workplace is simply not practical for convenience retailers. "The problem for c-store owners is that many of those who want to send their staff on training courses don't have enough employees, or enough cover, to make it affordable," he says. "We are developing an online e-learning package so that businesses such as convenience stores can train on a computer in-store, or at home, rather than needing to take a day off. The tool is set to launch in September and will cost £25 per person, so it's a viable option for c-stores."

He claims that if the cost puts store owners off, they should consider the benefits to be gained. "Businesses can see training as an expense, but if c-stores get it right they might even take some trade away from the big boys," he says.

Some retailers might view accommodating disabled people as a legal obligation, others as a moral obligation, but from a business perspective it is a real opportunity to grow your customer base. "In the UK 10 million (one in seven) people have a disability and in this economic climate you want everyone who comes through that door to spend money with you," says Carter.