Hundreds of Businesses at Risk as Disability Discrimination Act Bites

Dale Potts
Hundreds of small businesses run the risk of falling foul of the new Disability Discrimination Act requirements and face ending up in court.

October this year sees the Disability Discrimination Act coming into full force. Whilst most of the country’s largest service providers have already put their houses in order, hundreds of smaller businesses run the risk of falling foul of the new requirements and ending up in court. The situation is potentially all the more difficult for those who do not comply because there are no legal precedents, so the extent of claims and the approach likely to be taken by the judiciary are somewhat uncertain.

Leading project and cost management consultant Faithful+Gould has worked with some of the UK’s largest high street organisations auditing buildings for DDA compliance and advising on work required to achieve it. Explains Graham Tyerman, one of the company’s DDA specialists: “From the first of October 1999 a service provider has had to take reasonable steps in relation to physical and auxiliary aids for the disabled but significant sections of the service industry have largely ignored the rules. It is likely that a tougher line will be taken with regard to the wider requirements, so it is critical businesses take action.”

Many smaller operators may believe themselves exempt but the key is to appreciate that the Act applies to all service providers. This does not simply mean high street retailers, hotels and the like but also embraces, for example, restaurants, churches and banks. Educational establishments have a little longer – until 2005 –to carry out the necessary work, as they are subject to the particular requirements of the Special Educational Needs & Disability Act.

Most people think first of issues such as providing ramps for wheelchairs where steps have hitherto been the only means of access. In practice, the Act covers all forms of disability and is intended to benefit, for example, those who are blind, partially sighted or have an element of hearing impairment. This means a full assessment of a property will cover elements ranging from basic access to colour coding and signage.

Often the situation will be complicated by the nature of the building. Listed buildings are a particular case in point where rules may actually prevent the type of alterations which might seem the most obvious way to create a more user-friendly environment for the disabled. In such circumstances alternative approaches must be adopted – for example, providing comparable facilities in an adjacent more suitable building or offering services at ground floor which were previously only available on an ‘inaccessible’ first or higher storey.

Whilst it seems likely that most public complaints will focus on larger organisations which fail to comply, any service provider that has not met the requirements could find themselves in the civil court. The test they will face is one of ‘reasonableness’ - has the company taken reasonable steps to ensure ready access for disabled people?

This is a relatively difficult concept, particularly in the initial months before there have been any test cases. It is to be assumed that due consideration will be given to factors such as likely demand for disabled access to a particular facility, relative cost of works, prioritisation and, indeed, ability to pay. The latter applies particularly to larger organisations where we have experience of the cost of providing an ideal solution being in excess of £1 million. Under such circumstances would it be reasonable to have in place a schedule of works which might not yet provide the total solution but which can be expected to do so over a finite future period? The short answer is that for the moment no-one can say for certain.

Against this background, Faithful+Gould advises that all service providers who have not already done so should review their arrangements as a matter of urgency. Clearly having a professionally prepared report and implemented the recommendations within it should at once help avoid any problems and provide a clear indication of commitment to meeting the Act’s requirements.

Given the cost that, for some at least, is involved it is not surprising that legislation is the main driver to action. There is, however, another very sound reason for investing in this area. Of the UK’s 59 million or so people some 10 million are disabled and that’s quite a lot of ‘spending power’. Those who fail to comply not only risk the wrath of Government and the disabled community but also the loss of considerable ‘business’.

Faithful+Gould is a member of the Atkins Group of companies. It is one of the world’s largest project and cost management consultancies. Faithful+Gould employs over 2,000 staff with a turnover in excess of £120 million and has an expanding office base worldwide.

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