By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website
The action against Arcadia - brought by a Derbyshire woman who is unable to get into a branch of Burton in Stafford - puts a spotlight on the legal duty of retailers to provide access for disabled customers.
Steps are a fundamental access barrier
But what does the law mean by "reasonable adjustments"? And what changes are appropriate?
The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) imposes a requirement that all businesses must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled customers can access their services without difficulty.
The DDA refers to "reasonable adjustments" - a deliberately vague piece of terminology that allows sufficient flexibility, depending on the size and nature of the business.
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) - the body that is supporting Joanne Holland in her case against Arcadia - has produced a code of practice which attempts to clarify things.
It advises that "reasonable" will depend on:
- The type of service provided
The nature of the business and its size and resources
The effect of the disability on the individual disabled person
And in terms of deciding what is a reasonable adjustment, the DRC advises that a number of factors need to be taken into account:
- Whether taking a particular measure would be effective in overcoming the difficulty that disabled people are experiencing
How practical the proposed measures are
The amount of disruption that will occur
What has already been spent on making adjustments
Whether financial or any other assistance is available
The reason why the DRC has supported Ms Holland's action is because it feels that Arcadia - owners of Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins, Evans as well as Burton - has not done enough to improve access to its stores. It reckons that 40% of Arcadia's shops are inaccessible.
Arcadia says that it is using its best efforts to provide a good shopping experience and comply with the law.
"The Arcadia Group does not seek to discriminate against any disabled customers, and indeed all of our customers are valued," a company spokeswoman said.
The law provides a built-in economic defence - corner shops and large retail chains are considered very differently.
Ask the customer
DIY chain B&Q has more than 300 stores and 35,000 staff.
It decided that the best way to investigate the needs of disabled customers and staff was to organise focus groups in order to ask disabled people what could be done to improve the shopping experience
The company also carried out access audits and, as a result, it spent nearly £4m to ensure that some of the older stores were legally compliant by the time the final phase of the DDA became effective in October 2004.
B&Q took a strategic approach to disability
More than 28,000 staff attended disability awareness training, and this is now part of the induction process for new employees.
In order to improve communication with deaf customers, more than 150 employees have learnt British Sign Language.
The company has invested in a number of aids to make shopping easier. These include:
- Portable induction loops for hearing impaired customers
Making literature available in alternative formats - Braille, audio and large print - for visually impaired people
Manual wheelchairs in every store and electric scooters in the larger ones
B&Q's customer research identified a number of issues to be addressed, including high counters, narrow aisles, a lack of rest points and a lack of accessible parking.
At the other end of the spectrum the Blue Legume Cafe in North London has taken a number of measures in order to make disabled customers feel included.
Staff are always willing to help disabled customers - for instance helping wheelchair users to cross the small step into the cafe, or serving them in the covered area outside.
Visually impaired customers can have the menu read to them.
The furniture is moveable and can easily be rearranged to accommodate wheelchair users.
The staff are aware that extra time is sometimes needed when serving disabled people and are willing to do so in spite of the fact that the cafe is often very busy.
The Blue Legume still has a number of issues to address - eliminating the front step, improving toilet facilities, lowering counters and so on - these can be tackled as and when refurbishment work is carried out.
Although the law is by no means clear - and is unlikely to be so for some years to come as the number of cases to test it grows - it does seem that companies that take a proactive approach fare better than those that bury their heads in the sand and wait to see whether they will be on the wrong end of a writ.