Making life easier for disabled customers needn't cost a bomb, as Helen Gregory finds out

Idon't have many disabled customers, so what's the point of sticking an expensive ramp at the front of my shop?' It's a common enough argument, but have you ever stopped to consider just how many shoppers with mobility problems avoid your shop precisely because they can't get through the door?
Nearly a year after the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was rolled out, some independent retailers still either aren't clear about what it means to them or haven't yet made any changes to their shops. And although there aren't figures on how many c-store retailers have made the effort, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) says some high street shops are still impossible for disabled people to use.
"Many of our complaints about high street services last year were from disabled people complaining about difficulties with retailers - both small and large businesses," says a spokeswoman. "From what we're picking up on our helpline, there's still much more to be done to make the high street a welcoming place for disabled people."
Local disability action groups are also on the case, such as Richmond Advice and Information on Disability, which has surveyed small stores in South-west London. It discovered that high streets are largely inaccessible to disabled people, with only the big chains - not small stores - making progress.
The poll also found that some traders still weren't sure about what they should be doing, or thought that the DDA only related to people in wheelchairs. Says access officer Alex Brining: "Wheelchair users make up only 6% of the disabled population; there are lots of people
with sensory impairments that aren't catered for."
There are some 10 million people in the UK with some form of disability and a recent estimate put their collective spending power at more than £50bn a year. According to the DRC, this means that by meeting your requirements as a service provider under the DDA you will almost certainly get more customers.
So what's stopping small businesses making these changes? "Ignorance of what they need to do," offers the spokeswoman, "which is often very small and costs little, or the fear of the cost and perhaps thinking that they have no disabled customers."
Local councils can also make life difficult for those retailers who want to make changes, according to the Richmond disability group. Says Brining: "Many traders want to make changes, like putting in a portable ramp, but their local council has told them that they can't because it would be a barrier on the highway. To discourage people from making changes like this isn't in the spirit of the law."
Kishor Patel, who runs a Nisa Local store in Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire, has just put in an application for a ramp into his shop - at a cost of about £1,000 - as he believes it will help regular customers with mobility problems and encourage other disabled people to use his store. But he worries that the council will turn the application down because the ramp will be on its land. Says Kishor: "They made a big fuss about us putting an ATM outside and we have to pay rent to them for it each year, but I think a ramp is very important because at the moment we help by lifting in people in wheelchairs."
But putting in a ramp is no guarantee that you'll find scores of disabled people beating at your door, according to Vernon Tyerman, who owns Chale Green Stores on the Isle of Wight. He put a ramp up to the back entrance of his shop but says only two or three people have used it in the past 18 months. Instead, disabled shoppers tend to wait in the
car while able-bodied family members come in and do the shopping for them. Says Vernon: "I realise that it's still a bit of an effort to get round the back of the shop - you need to be quite determined - but at least the ramp helps us get our deliveries in!"
He advises other retailers to survey their customer base to understand just how many people would actually use a ramp before going to the trouble of installing it, as he believes that helping those customers with mobility problems inside the store is usually more welcome. "Staff will get things down from shelves and carry shopping to the checkout, and older people really appreciate that."
Indeed, existing customers can give you useful information about their particular access requirements, while building professionals, such as a surveyor, can provide technical advice. If you're really serious about doing a good job, an access auditor who specialises in looking at improvements to services and buildings to make them easier for disabled people to use can produce a full access audit of your building.
The Association of Convenience Stores advises retailers that before
getting started on building work they should take into account the type, size and turnover of their business, the cost of the adjustment, the disruption while the work is being carried out, the practicality of carrying out the adjustment and the potential benefits to disabled customers.
But remember that removing or altering physical features does not always have to be expensive. For example, just altering the way display units are set out could make it easier for disabled people to get round, while improvements to the lighting could make items more accessible.
A DRC spokeswoman adds: "What's reasonable for a small store would be different to what's reasonable for Marks & Spencer. For the cost of a bag of cement you could put a ramp up to your entrance so that people with mobility problems could get in. It doesn't just have to be physical adjustments, though - someone with a visual impairment might not be able to read the signs on the shelves if they are too small, which would be cheap to change, while you could offer to use a notebook and write down things for someone who is deaf."
Disabled people can take legal action if they feel they've been treated unfairly on the grounds of their disability, but it seems there is realistically more of a moral obligation than a legal obligation to make changes. And although there are no plans to amend the DDA, disability groups are pushing the government to make it tougher and more explicit about traders' obligations.
In the meantime, if the threat of possible legal action doesn't worry you, remember that if there's a nearby Tesco Express with wide aisles and easy access, your disabled shoppers might have another reason to defect.

How you can help

? Escort blind and visually impaired customers to a safe place where they explain what they want
? Install brighter lights
? Put a buzzer at the front door so staff can help bring goods to a disabled shopper
? Create signage with large letters
? Hire staff who are patient and caring

What's the DDA about?

The Disability Discrimination Act puts a duty on all service providers - including small store owners - not to treat disabled people unfairly, to make 'reasonable adjustments' in how they provide their service and, most importantly, to make 'reasonable adjustments' to premises to overcome physical barriers to access. Failure to do so could lead to loss of reputation or even prosecution.
Physical features that can prove a barrier to access include steps, kerbs, building entrances, toilets, telephones, counters, lighting and ventilation.
However, what is reasonable depends on factors including the size of store, turnover, cost of the changes and the potential benefits to customers.

Useful websites

Disability Rights Commission
Centre for Accessible Environments
National Register of Access Auditors