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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January, 2005, 00:00 GMT
New services to improve access
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

Businesses unsure of how to comply with new laws on disabled access are being offered new services to help them meet their legal obligations.

Photo of wheelchair user automatic gate
Many companies don't know what changes to make
Disability charity, SCOPE, has joined Allied Surveyors to provide companies with an access audit that will include not only the physical barriers facing disabled people but will also look at the attitude of employees.

And the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) is offering on-site assessments on how well businesses are geared up to deal with hearing-impaired customers.

Since October 1 2004 anyone providing goods or services to the public has a legal duty to ensure that disabled people can access their premises, or that an acceptable alternative service is made available.

SCOPE says that many businesses are aware of the need to make adjustments but very few knew what changes to make.

"Many businesses are worried that it would be expensive to make changes or even ask for advice about what they can do," said Allied Surveyors chief executive, Robert Bryant Pearson.

"What many people don't realise is that you may be able to make immediate reasonable adjustments with attitudinal or service changes if your building isn't yet, or can't be made accessible."

The SCOPE/Allied service combines the expertise of a chartered surveyor with mystery shopping carried out by disabled people from SCOPE's Disability Equality Team.

"The great beauty of this new service is that while Allied Surveyors provide disability audits for premises, SCOPE has the expertise to provide disability equality training for our surveyors, as well as to customers of the service."

Photo of wheelchair user attempting to get up steps
Barriers must be removed, or the service provided in a different way
SCOPE's chief executive, Tony Manwaring, thinks this is a practical way to deal with the exclusion of disabled people.

"This isn't just about sitting round lecturing people on equality, but helping them to understand the barriers that disabled people face in our society today," he said.

Legal risk

RNID decided to launch its new service - called Louder than Words - in response to research showing that more than three-quarters of small and medium size businesses risk legal action under the Disability Discrimination Act.

The first 30 small businesses to request an on-site assessment will not have to pay the usual fee of 500.

RNID access co-ordinator, Jacqui Haskell, says the potential damage to an organisation of having to fight a legal case is "tremendous".

"This risk is needless given that very often the adjustments to be DDA compliant are easy and cost-effective to implement," she said.

The Disability Discrimination Act is a civil law and interpretation of it will be determined by judges when cases are brought against service providers.

Once a body of case law exists, disabled people and service providers alike will have a much clearer idea of what adjustments need to be made.

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