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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK
Shops 'not ready' for disability law
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Four out of five businesses on Britain's high streets are unprepared for new disability laws which come into effect on Friday this week, according to research carried out by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

Wheelchair user Lisa Egan
Sometimes I just think 'why did I leave the house this morning?' I come home with absolutely nothing, I couldn't get into any shops
Lisa Egan
The organisation says that disabled people are getting a second class service and encountering major problems when they go out shopping.

The DRC conducted surveys on eleven high streets which show that the majority of shops, restaurants, cinemas and pubs are still not disabled friendly.

On 1 October part III of the Disability Discrimination Act - which requires anyone offering a service to remove physical barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing it - comes into effect.

Although other parts of the Act have been on the statute books for some time, Friday's change will mean that businesses will have to consider 'physical features' like steps, heavy doors, insufficient lighting, lack of signs and poor colour contrast.

"Shops and services have had nine years to improve things for disabled people," said DRC assistant communications director, Agnes Fletcher.

"From 1 October disabled people will be able to take court cases against persistent offenders - so the picture should change and people will no longer have to put up with a second class service."

The survey - conducted by NOP - found that:

  • Four out of five city centres posed significant problems for disabled shoppers
  • Almost a quarter of the 88 high street businesses surveyed were rated as 'poor' or 'very poor'
  • A fifth of the disabled shoppers who took part in the research said they would not go back to the high street that they had visited
  • Problems getting around added an extra two hours to disabled people's shopping trips
  • A third of public toilets were difficult or impossible to access

Business organisations say that they are supportive of the legislation and blame the lack of preparedness on its complexity.

"New legislation always throws up problems," the CBI's Neil Bentley told BBC News Online.

"I think it will take a couple of years before we see a real sea change in making services fully accessible, but when the demand is clearly there, and businesses see that demand from disabled customers, they will jump to make those changes."

Stores nervous

If the BBC's experience is anything to go by, there is a good deal of nervousness among large high street chains about whether or not they are complying with the law.

Photo of shop with stepped entrance
Steps, heavy doors and poor layout can often be problematic
When filming for the Six O'Clock News in Oxford, the majority of stores approached refused permission to film - including those who have already taken substantial steps towards meeting their legal obligations.

Small businesses are only expected to make 'reasonable adjustments', so they won't bankrupt themselves to improve access.

But for Oxford newsagent, Jane Taylor, making access improvements in a listed building would mean having to remove a centre aisle which might then make the business unviable.

"We'll do all we can to help people but we can't really make many changes," she said.

Small businesses

The CBI - together with the Federation of Small Businesses - unsuccessfully lobbied the government a year ago for further tax breaks to help small businesses to improve their accessibility.

Photo of Stephen Alambritis
Stephen Alambritis says tax breaks would have been helpful
"It would have got the accountancy profession talking to their clients so that they could take advantage of it," said the Federation's Stephen Alambritis.

"This would have instigated an earlier preparedness of the legislation, but we didn't get it and now we have to look at other ways of getting businesses on board."

Making the high street a barrier-free environment can't come soon enough for people like Lisa Egan - a 25 year-old wheelchair user who accompanied us as we filmed in Oxford.

"Sometimes I have a brilliant day out, but then other times it's just an utter nightmare," she said.

"Sometimes I just think 'why did I leave the house this morning?' I come home with absolutely nothing, I couldn't get into any shops. It varies a lot."

The BBC's Geoff Adams-Spink
"Having a successful day out can be very hit and miss"

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