Most businesses are aware of the Equality Act, but do you appreciate its far-reaching consequences? If you employ disabled people, or you provide a service to the public, the Act affects you.

The Act already protects disabled persons who use your goods and services against discrimination by providing inferior service or refusing service. It also requires you to change any working practices that act as a barrier to disabled persons, and to supply any aids or services that would assist a disabled person using your goods or services.

You must also take reasonable steps to ensure that you make adjustments to any physical features of your premises that present a barrier to disabled people, or to offer a way for people to avoid it. This may mean in some cases structural alterations to the building itself to install access ramps, suitable toilets and so on.

When is a person disabled?

The Act says that a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has “substantial, long-term and adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

  • Impairments can be physical (mobility), mental (learning disabilities and some mental illnesses), or sensory (hearing or visual). Some impairments are excluded by the Act; these include hay fever and addiction to drugs (including nicotine and alcohol) unless prescribed by a Doctor.
  • Substantial means more than just the normal variation in people’s abilities.
  • Long-term means that the impairment has lasted or will probably last for at least 12 months.

What you have to do

Change any policies, practices and procedures that make it impossible or difficult for disabled persons to use your goods or services

  • Practices: what you do
  • Policies: how you regulate what you do
  • Procedures: the systems you use to achieve those policies

These may be formal or informal; an example of a formal policy would be a sign prohibiting animals. An informal one would be your staff discouraging pet owners from coming into your premises. To comply with the Act you would need to change the practice, policy or procedure by removing it completely, or make exceptions for disabled people. In the example a sign exempting guide dogs would comply. You also need to make your staff aware of any changes you introduce by suitable training.

Introduce suitable aids or services to enable disabled persons to use your goods or services

  • Aids: a piece of equipment or technology such as ramps, low-level light switches and door handles, and hand rails.
  • Services; extra assistance such as helping a customer in a wheelchair.

The Act requires you to take “reasonable steps” to provide these aids and services, and this depends on:

  • The size of your business
  • The resources available to you
  • The cost of providing the extra aid or service

Change or remove any physical barriers that make it impossible or very difficult for disabled persons to access your goods and services

A physical feature can be fittings, fixtures, furniture, equipment or machinery, and may form part of the approach, entrance, or exit to your premises.

There are very many examples of potential barriers; lighting, ventilation, kerbs, doors, floors, pavings and paths. The Act requires you to remove or change any physical feature which is a barrier to disabled people, or to provide an alternative method of making the goods or services available.

This requirement can mean major expense for some businesses. For instance, in many high street shops and offices the door opens off the street with a step down to the pavement, and an upstairs toilet. The Act will require the owner of the shop to change the access so that a person in a wheelchair can get through the door easily. This could mean putting in a ramp, changing the door, and building a downstairs toilet. All of these may mean changing the layout of the street-level premises. If the premises are rented this will require the consent of the Landlord, and may also require planning consent.

Other examples include widening doorways for wheelchair access, providing disabled car-parking facilities, and installing audio-visual fire alarms.

Remove barriers to disabled employees

Similar principles also apply to your own employees if any are disabled. You must make reasonable adjustments to remove or reduce the effect of any physical features that are a significant barrier to disabled employees. In addition to the kinds of alterations you may need to introduce for the general public, you may also need to consider relocating a disabled person’s workplace to the ground floor, or provide modified equipment such as an adapted keyboard for a person with arthritis.

Making significant changes to your premises

If your property was built after 1 October 1994 you do not need to make any further changes to the property to comply with the Act for 10 years after it was constructed.

What happens if you don’t comply with the Act

The Act makes discrimination unlawful. A member of the public who is prevented from using your goods or services can bring a claim for unlimited damages against you. The Disability Rights Commission can also bring a claim. An employee who has been discriminated against can also bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal.

For further information please contact David Vaughan-Birch.