This was the title of a four-part documentary on Radio 4 in 1986 which explored accessibility and attitudes towards disability, and found that our society is shockingly poor in coping with the needs of those who face barriers to living and working through mental or physical disablement. Perceptions were often that people in wheelchairs were unable to speak for themselves and needed their carer to communicate.
Fast forward 31 years from 1986, are we any better?
Well, we do have legislation in the form of the 2010 Equality Act which aims ‘to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’
However, even though this is the law, it is not policed, and therefore not universally adhered to. Only yesterday, I came across a story in the press concerned a hearing-impaired man with a clearly identified service dog who was marched out of a burger restaurant in south west London. A grovelling apology from the CEO of the restaurant chain identified that, whilst he was aware of the law, this had not been clearly communicated to the branch management.
So, whilst we have the statutes, we still don’t have the right culture to allow people with disabilities to live as wide and fulfilling a life as possible.
I recently met with Cornish accessibility specialist, Jamie Hanlon, www.accessibilitycornwall.uk as making your workplace accessible is a key factor in ensuring your business is sustainable. Jamie is passionate about helping businesses find out how they can become accessible and benefit from the massive market that finds themselves unable to work, shop or simply have a fun night out because they can’t get into a building or once inside can’t use it.
Who should we consider when we address accessibility?
When we think of disability access, the first thought is often of wheelchair access. However, wheelchair users only make up a small proportion of people with disabilities. To fully understand who our business could be excluding, we need to add in those with hearing or sight impairment; those with conditions which mean they need easy access to toilets, food or water; those who have illnesses that if not controlled could mean they appear drunk or drugged; mental health issues which may require particular surroundings or interactions; speech impediments and hundreds more. People living with disabilities are just as individual as everyone else, and their needs must be considered.
Potential members of our team
There are over 11 million registered people living with disabilities in the UK alone, approximately 2 million are of working age, often skilled and willing to work, but unable to access the workplace due to physical barriers (stairs, transport, location) or health barriers that limit the number of hours they work, where they work or how they get to work. Often people with disabilities never get beyond the application stage, being written off before they have even started despite being well qualified for the job.
Many years ago, I had a very enlightened employer who felt that a disability was not a barrier to good work. I worked alongside people with physical and mental impairments. In fact, one of our most productive was a man who suffered from schizophrenia but controlled it with heavy medication. This meant that he frequently fell asleep at his desk in the middle of the day, was sometimes absent long periods, but when he was present, his output was top quality and vast.
If we can move from managing our workforce by their presence, to managing them by their output, then we can work towards a more diverse team which will bring a range of benefits, skills and enthusiasm to the workplace.
11 million people with disabilities is also potentially a huge market for your organisation, but if they can’t get to you, they won’t buy from you. Just imagine what 11 million more customers could do for your sales. Visits to hotels, restaurants and cafés with friends, family or carers tend to be at quieter times of the year or day. With the right facilities, you could become the go-to place at times when you would normally have less trade.
The legislation requires you make ‘reasonable adjustments’, so you are not going to be forced to put in a new lift or completely redesign your premises. For a shop with steps to the entrance, perhaps put in a bell at street level and train your staff to go out and serve that customer in the street. Make sure any signage is clear with sufficient contrast for people with sight impairment and include a hearing loop. Make sure your website is accessible and highlights what steps you have made to welcome people with disabilities.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do though is train your staff to recognise where colleagues and customers might need help and how to offer it without being patronising or interfering.
People with disabilities are used to living in a world with barriers, and are adept at finding ways round them and over them. Some barriers we cannot remove, but by offering a friendly and welcoming hand, we can ensure that everyone has access to our service, our product or our workplace.