Making business accessible to everyone
14.1 million people in the UK are recognised as disabled – over one fifth of the entire population. These individuals face myriad additional challenges in their day to day lives, and businesses are often poorly adapted to facilitate accessibility of stakeholders – particularly employees and customers.
Potential employees with exceptional talent may be overlooked due to a disability; a physical difference can often overshadow other achievements. Conversely, some disabilities are ‘invisible’, in that they do not manifest physically (such as autism spectrum disorders), which can result in discrimination through lack of understanding.
Families comprising at least one disabled person are believed to have a spending power of £274 billion each year – improving access to premises and websites could really influence where these families choose to spend their money.
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Challenges faced by those with disabilities
The term disability describes a very diverse group of people and their individual challenges. It encompasses physical (caused by congenital conditions, chronic illness, or injury), sensory (such as sight or hearing impairments), mental health, and learning disabilities. The World Health Organization describes disability as having three dimensions: impairment of physical or mental function, activity limitation and participation restrictions.
In the wake of record-breaking inflation and unrest in Eastern Europe, the cost of living has soared in 2022. Even before these events, disabled people faced, on average, additional costs of £583 each month compared to non-disabled people; these relate to specialist equipment and services needed in everyday life (such as therapy or physical home adaptations), greater reliance on non-specialist services (such as using more energy to heat homes and using private transport due to inaccessibility of public transport) and higher prices for non-specialist goods (they may find it more difficult to shop around for better prices, or have to pay extra for insurance due to their disability). For one in five, these extra costs surpass £1,000 every month.
In Q2 2021, 4.4 million disabled people were employed in the UK – 53% of all disabled people in the country. This figure has certainly improved – seeing an increase of 390,000 over the preceding two years – but still falls short of the 81% of non-disabled people employed. While some people may have disabilities that prevent them from working, many face discrimination when searching for a role, or are not provided with the adaptations needed to succeed in the job. Others feel a constant need to work harder to prove themselves, which is exhausting and demoralising.
Workplace accommodations improve efficiency, ultimately adding value to a company. But businesses often don’t fully appreciate this and view these accommodations as an inconvenience. Some employers aren’t prepared to make the necessary adaptations to facilitate a disabled person, or they make an accommodation without fully understanding the specific need of the individual: a one-size fits all accommodation doesn’t exist. Some employees with mental health conditions need less obvious accommodations, such as help with social skills or being allowed more time to communicate.
Entering an establishment and navigating the layout are often challenges for those with physical disabilities and users of mobility aids. According to the UK Disability Survey, almost a third of disabled people have difficulty accessing public spaces ‘all the time’ or ‘often’; shops and shopping centres posed the greatest challenge (76%) along with pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes (66%). Internal signs using obscure language or printed in difficult fonts create difficulty for those with reading or visual impairments.
The Office of Fair Trading (now the Competition and Markets Authority) studied the mobility aid market in 2011 and found limited mobility and age-related conditions rendered consumers more vulnerable when making purchase decisions. They also noted high complaint numbers in the market related to unfair sales practices, and a breach of competition law by two mobility scooter manufacturers.
78% of disabled people use technology to improve independent living. Websites and online shopping are excellent resources for those who can navigate them, but it isn’t always straight-forward; in their National Disability Strategy research, the Government found that 98% of the million most visited web pages failed to meet accessibility standards. For some it may be the font, or colours of the page that cause problems, for others it may be difficulty using a mouse. People with disabilities use the internet for the same things as those without disabilities – shopping, paying bills, entertainment – but unfortunately have a tougher time doing it.
How can businesses improve accessibility…
… for employees?
Unconscious bias relates to beliefs held about individuals or groups without even knowing it. Staff education is key to removing these ideas from the workforce and creating an inclusive environment. Employee training can educate workers to the barriers faced by disabled colleagues and provide training on appropriate communication to avoid unintended offence.
Recruitment programmes begin at a career webpage, which must be accessible if those with disabilities are to be allowed equal opportunity to apply. Wording of the advertisement should be reviewed to ensure candidate specifications don’t inadvertently rule out anyone with a disability. Interviews should be held in a location that the candidate can assess – such in a ground floor location for a wheelchair user – and computers provided for written tests if candidates struggle to complete these by hand.
Once recruited, adaptations to the workplace may be needed to allow the employee to reach full potential. Accommodations are usually inexpensive, but the Government offers the Access to Work Grant if additional funding is needed to pay for these. Some example accommodations include allocated parking, visual communication supports, daily team huddles, interpreters, quiet environments, ergonomic workstations, ramps, remote work options and break time flexibility.
… for customers?
Disabled consumers receive a significantly improved service when client facing staff interact with them respectfully. Sensitivity training can be of real benefit and may include topics such as how to ask someone if they need help (never assume they do or don’t), or how to approach service animals. It also promotes a culture of inclusivity and benefits colleagues with disabilities in addition to customers.
Physical modifications to stores and eating establishments improve the experience of those who find mobilising difficulty or who use mobility aids. Simple measures such as removing clutter from walkways not only increases the space for disabled people, but removes tripping hazards in general, reducing the risk of injury. Ramps and adequate door sizes allow easier entrance, and a toilet with ample space, handrails and an outward opening door improve the experience of disabled customers.
Clear and simple signs are a valuable aid to those with visual or hearing difficulties. Clear readable fonts, such as 72-point sans-serif font (Verdana, Arial) enable simpler navigation around the premises. Braille on door signs, menus and business cards assist those with visual impairments.
Designing websites with accessibility in mind has the obvious commercial benefit of increasing your audience but is also a legal requirement to avoid discriminating against those with disabilities. The Equality Act 2010 outlines the expectation that providers make reasonable adjustments to facilitate disabled access. Visually impaired individuals can use a screen reader to read out loud the text of a webpage or to help complete an online form; web pages that incorporate graphics within the text interfere with this process, rendering it difficult for the user to navigate the page or access content. Other accessibility features may include voice recognition or use of keyboard commands for those who are unable to use a mouse, and captions or transcripts of audio content for those with hearing impairments. These could also improve use for non-disabled users and improve search engine rankings.
Marketing and the media have enormous power to influence an audience’s view on disability. Representation in marketing campaigns matters, and consumers buy more from brands they can relate to. But it’s important to really embody this diversity – not just showcase it in a marketing campaign – or risk appearing inauthentic for the sake of increasing sale numbers.
Moving forwards with accessibility
In our last blog post we discussed labour shortages currently inflicting the UK; by making roles more accessible to disabled people, you could tap into a huge pool of talent, who – with some accommodations – can perform well in highly skilled roles. The result? Heightened productivity, a diverse workforce, inclusivity, and reputation as a forward-thinking business taking ESG initiatives (social governance) seriously.
A 2018 report published by Accenture showed that of 140 companies in the USA, those with robust disability and inclusion programmes in place had higher revenue, profit, and shareholder return that those lacking. Customer loyalty is heavily influenced by a sense of value alignment; consumers with disabilities are more likely to buy from retailers who exemplify their own beliefs.
If in doubt about the accessibility of an environment or website, reaching out to disabled people who use it regularly for feedback could be incredibly valuable when to comes to development.
There are many steps businesses can take to facilitate accessibility for everyone. Due to the huge array of disabilities and individual requirements of people with varying degrees of disability we have given only a very brief overview of the subject here. For more comprehensive information, it is advisable to seek formal advice from accessibility and usability consultants.
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