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Comment: Retailers need to make shops more accessible says Carrie Gilbertson of Displaysense

For many decades retailers believed they were doing enough to make their buildings accessible by having a ramp, but in recent years there have been repeated calls for places to be easily accessible to all rather than the few.

This growing focus on the accessibility of everywhere - from supermarkets to high street fashion outlets - comes at a time when people are starting to question the status quo and the accepted dominance of certain groups. Why shouldn’t we all feel represented when we step into a clothes shop? Why should models and mannequins always be the traditionally slim ideal when so many shoppers don’t fit this box? And, just as importantly, why should retail outlets be inaccessible or difficult to navigate for large swathes of people?

Last July We Are Purple, an organisation on a mission to “change the conversation” around disability between the disabled population and businesses, launched the Help Me Spend My Money campaign. In an article in The Guardian, We Are Purple’s Mark Flint described the drive’s aim to transform current thinking and to “illustrate that becoming disability-friendly is not just morally right, but makes complete business sense”. The same article shares the power of the disabled “purple” pound, said to be some £80 bn.

The morality behind making shops as accessible as possible to all should be enough to convince retailers to make a change, but it would be naive to suggest that the chance to improve their bottom line isn’t also compelling to shrewd business people.

A year-long study from the independent Extra Costs Commission last year revealed that 75% of disabled people have had to leave a store or deserted a business because of poor disability awareness. Nearly half (49%) also said they feel they only have some of the information they need to make a purchase. Clearly the UK’s retailers are not empowering disabled shoppers to part with their cash, and it appears that not much has changed since a 2014 Disabledgo survey that found less than a third of UK shops had accessible changing rooms. The survey, which audited 27,000 high street retailers, also found that a fifth of stores were inaccessible due to stepped entrances and a lack of ramps, and that 65% of retail staff have never been given any training around helping disabled people in-store.

So what do owners and companies need to consider?

Firstly, accessibility to the store - replacing steps or uneven ground with a ramp is the best solution, but if there are restrictions on changes to a building, why not consider handrails to help those with limited mobility? These handrails could be painted in bright colours to ensure people with visual impairments are able to navigate your entrance. Also remember that you can purchase temporary ramps, and these are best paired with a doorbell so disabled customers can alert you to their arrival and to advertise your space is accessible.

Navigating a busy shop floor can be intimidating for a disabled customer, but there are some very simple changes to make it easier. Make sure all aisles are clear of obstructions, and keep signs at a height viewable to people both sitting and standing. It’s also worth supplementing signs with pictures and symbols, and consider braille instructions too.

The height of shelving and displays is important, as is the space left between display units. Ensure that aisles are wide enough to accomodate wheelchairs, and that there is enough space for wheelchairs to move easily around corners. Displays of items should be at waist height if possible, ensuring they are in easy reach of wheelchair users, and it’s helpful for clothes rails to be at a low enough height for items to be browsed at eye level.

Just because a changing room is on the ground floor doesn’t make it accessible, but a few simple changes can make it safe and useable for all. Good lighting is essential, and also consider grab rails at varying heights. Most clothing hooks are at a height aimed at people standing up, so install a few lower down so that wheelchair users can hang potential purchases up. An emergency cord or alarm is a worthwhile investment and will give peace of mind to more vulnerable people using a changing space.

Paying for goods can be a stressful experience for many disabled customers, and it goes without saying that assistants and fellow customers should behave patiently and treat people in a dignified way. From a practical perspective, consider a dropped height counter so wheelchair users can easily reach the card machine or hand over cash. Simple items like hard folders can give a quick and easy surface for cheques to be written or card receipts to be signed, and it’s worth investing in a portable card machine that can be handed to a customer.

As society becomes more focused on making accessibility for all a priority, it’s vital for retailers to consider accessible layouts and solutions from day one, rather than viewing accessibility as something to be tackled once a store has already been laid out.

The above points demonstrate how simple and cost effective it can be to make any retail space useable for all.

Carrie Gilbertson is commercial manager at Displaysense