Disability Discrimination Act: Access all areas

One in five people in Great Britain is disabled. This amounts to around 10 million people, with a wide range of impairments all facing different barriers in employment and in accessing goods and services. But they have a combined spending power of £50bn and businesses whose offices or services are not accessible are limiting their opportunities to gain substantial income – as well as making the organisation vulnerable to legal action.

As advisers, accountants need to have a good understanding of what the duties mean to ensure that companies and their clients’ organisations can broaden customer bases and meet the new requirements of the DDA.

Disability encompasses a wide range of impairments, including mobility, sight, hearing and speech impairments, learning disabilities, as well as a number of ‘hidden’ impairments, such as arthritis, asthma, dyslexia, epilepsy and mental illness.

There are more than one million unemployed disabled people in the UK who say they want to work.

Currently the DDA requires that disabled people should not be unjustifiably discriminated against in employment or when seeking employment because of their disability. Physical changes may be required, but other more straightforward changes or allowances can be equally important. These might include allowing someone time off for treatment, providing information in alternative formats such as large print or Braille, or even holding interviews in an accessible location.

But employers are only required to make changes if they actually have a disabled employee or job applicant.

The DDA already requires all businesses that provide a service to the public to make reasonable changes to the way that they provide their service so that disabled people can gain better access to it. This can include things like making information available in accessible formats like large print or audiotape. The duties on service providers are anticipatory, which means they have to consider the needs of disabled people who might use their business and make reasonable adjustments for them.

From 1 October 2004, these duties are being extended, and service providers are required to address the physical barriers that prevent disabled people from using their service. Alternatively they need to consider whether they can provide their services in a different way, for example by offering services over the internet, communicating by textphone or visiting customers at home.

Physical changes are not just about widening aisles. Using colour contrast, ensuring premises are well lit, or increasing the size of text on signs are all ways that can help to make services more accessible to disabled people.

A positive attitude can also have a significant impact on whether or not a disabled customer uses a service again, not to mention recommendations to family and friends.

There is no single solution for meeting the needs of disabled customers. The DDA only requires you to be ‘reasonable’. This means you will only need to do what is practical and affordable in your situation. What is reasonable for a large company is unlikely to be reasonable for a smaller company on a tight budget – but all businesses need to think about what barriers their premises and services might present and take steps to tackle them.

A good starting point is to talk to disabled people about what is good and bad about gaining access to the service at the moment. An access audit can also be helpful, focusing on the key areas of approaching and entering, moving around and using services. This process will probably highlight a number of potential changes. Many of these may be quick and straightforward and bigger changes can often be built into the company’s ongoing maintenance programme.

The Department for Work and Pensions has introduced the Access All Areas Awards – an awards scheme that recognises and congratulates businesses for making significant improvements to enable disabled people to access their goods or services. The awards, supported by Vodafone, are open to all small and medium-sized service-provider businesses that submit entries by 30 September 2004.

Peter Nokes works with the disability unit at the Department for Work and Pensions.


What is the DDA?

The Disability Discrimination Act requires that no organisation discriminate against disabled employees, job applicants or service users because of their disability. Businesses that provide services cannot, for example, refuse to serve a disabled person or provide a lower standard of service because of their disability, unless this can be justified.

What’s new?

From 1 October 2004, new DDA duties come into force. As a result, if there are any physical barriers that prevent the disabled from using your service, you may have to make reasonable changes to make your services more accessible. ie. removing, altering, or helping people avoid these barriers or providing the service by another reasonable means. Employers with fewer than 15 staff are covered by the DDA for the first time.

What are reasonable changes?

In deciding what constitutes ‘reasonable’, factors such as the cost and practicality of making an adjustment, and the extent of the resources available to the business will all be taken into account.

What if my company is found to be in breach of the DDA?

If a person believes you have discriminated against them because of their disability, you could be taken to a tribunal or have a civil case brought against you. You may have to pay some compensation.

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