The social model of disability states that “people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference”. Removal of these barriers would therefore enable disabled people* to live fully as equal members of their community. This model was developed by disabled people more than 40 years ago. So why has the world not caught up yet?
The World Health Organization estimates about 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability. Over one in five people in the UK alone are disabled (that’s around 14 million people, according to figures from 2019).
Yet according to the charity Purple, 75% of disabled people and their families have walked away from a business because of poor customer service or lack of access. This made the headlines only recently in Glasgow, when Israeli minister Karine Elharrar was unable to get into a building at the UN COP26 climate summit in her wheelchair.
Everyone is losing out. UK businesses miss out on an estimated £2 billion every month--the ‘Purple Pound’, as it’s become known--by not catering for people of all needs and abilities.
So how can you ensure your business is accessible to everyone?
How to improve accessibility
It’s not just about getting through the door, though this can make businesses fall at the first hurdle. Caroline cared for her mother during a period of illness that severely affected her mobility, and found physical access harder than she expected.
“In the village where my mum lived, there were only two shops we could get into with a wheelchair. I had to think really carefully where we were going. Even the way they lay the stores out is sometimes really awkward for anyone with mobility difficulties. It does make you feel like you don’t want to go there again.”
Accessibility guidelines for shops and other public places recommend spaces like aisles and doorways to be at least 32 inches wide. Counters should have a section that is no more than 36 inches tall. For cafes and restaurants, tables should be no more than 34 inches wide and no less than 28 inches in height, with at least 27 inches of clearance underneath.
Serving disabled customers
Communication can be a challenge for many people in noisy, busy service environments. For people like Ryan, who has no hearing in one ear, bustling restaurants can be a nightmare.
“Anyone with a hearing impairment struggles with filtering out background noise. I’ve had some tetchy exchanges in restaurants. There is an assumption of being rude or difficult, if you can’t hear,” he says.
Sensory overload can also be experienced by those with autism or anxiety. Ryan notes that some supermarkets have designated quieter hours, which can help. Eateries could do a lot by simply having some tables placed in quieter areas.
As for customer-facing service skills, that comes back to training, Caroline says:
“People would talk to me, not my mum, or talk slowly or loudly. I remember her saying once ‘I’m not a child, you don’t have to speak to me like that.’ It’s just about getting that balance, not to take anyone’s independence away but for staff to say ‘let me know if you need some help’.”
For disabled people, good customer service means staff having understanding, patience and an awareness that they may have different needs, some of which are more visible than others.
Information in the right format
There are lots of different ways to present information, but people with neurological or developmental difficulties don’t always have access to the method they need. David has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and can find verbal explanations difficult to focus on.
“It’s always easier for me with text because I can read at my own speed and stop if I want. Sometimes with videos I need to put it on higher speed because my brain needs more input to feel stimulated.”
Not having access to alternative formats can prove dangerous in some circumstances, as David explains:
“We did some rope-climbing outdoors on a retreat and the person was explaining how to attach the rope. I wasn’t getting what they were saying. I remember the person was a little bit annoyed because I asked a couple of questions but then I didn't ask any more. I think I put myself in danger there because I hadn't fully understood. If I’d had something written or visual, that would have helped.”
Making a website accessible to all can reach so many more potential customers. Websites can go a long way just by having an easy navigation system, and making it obvious upfront what accessible facilities they have for people.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) gives a full set of global standards on how to make web content accessible. For starters, businesses should ensure they have the following in their website and digital materials:
- Alt tags on images and ARIA tags to provide further descriptions for buttons
- Dark text on light backgrounds and/or a tool to alter the colour and contrast for people with visual impairments
- Large buttons/clickable elements
- Font should be at least 16px
- Pages and headings well-organised, and optimised for assistive technology like screen readers
- Reading level 8 on Flesch-Kincaid Scale (average reading level which can be read by 80% of general public)
Inclusive customer service benefits everyone
In fact, some of the smallest changes businesses can make actually make a big difference to the majority of people, no matter what their ability.
Having information available in different formats, clearly structured and presented, benefits people across the neurological spectrum. Quiet spots in an otherwise hectic supermarket or restaurant are a relief for anyone. And staff who are trained and understanding of widely different needs, both visible and invisible, make the whole service experience much more welcoming for everyone.
For more tips and resources on making your business more accessible, go to
*I recognise that some people prefer the phrase ‘disabled person’ and others prefer ‘person with a disability’. In this article, I have used ‘disabled people’ to describe people collectively, and ‘person with___’ to denote someone’s specific condition.