The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been progressively phased in since December 1996. But from October 2004 all businesses providing services to the public are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to their premises to make them both accessible and usable by disabled people.
Am I a service provider?
You are a service provider if you or your business is concerned with the provision of goods, services or facilities to the public or a section of the public. Restaurants, hotels, shops, offices and other business premises are therefore service providers and are affected.
What are reasonable adjustments?
This varies in each case depending on the size and type of the business, as well as the nature of any problem. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect a small business to make large structural changes to its premises if such alterations would seriously affect its viability. Neither would it be reasonable to make adjustments that would drastically alter the atmosphere or character of the premises.
Am I responsible for making the adjustments?
If you are the owner of a leased property, your lease should make it clear whether you or your landlord is responsible for alterations. It is likely that the lease will state that you will comply with all necessary statutory requirements, which makes you responsible for any adjustments. If your lease does not have such a provision, you should seek your landlord's permission to make the necessary changes. The landlord may not unreasonably refuse. Depending on the nature of the adjustments, you may also need to get planning permission.
What about the common parts of the building?
In a shopping centre or business park, for example, both the leaseholder and landlord are likely to bear responsibility for making the premises comply with the legislation. The leaseholders occupying the shops or offices are responsible for their individual premises, while the landlord is responsible for the communal areas.
Identification of necessary adjustments
You need to make sure disabled people can access your premises and use your facilities in the same way as non-disabled people. Reasonable adjustments may need to be made to the design, layout or construction of the building or its facilities. When considering this, take care to consider all types of disabilities and the fact that adjustments may need to be made in relation to access, vision and sound.
It is not enough that your premises comply with current building regulations. For example, the necessary width of a door opening is not the same in the building regulations as it is in the Disability Discrimination Act. One way of assessing whether your premises comply with the act is to commission an access audit. Contact the Disability Rights Commission for a qualified auditor in your area.
What impact will there be on my business if I can't comply?
If you cannot comply with the act for a legitimate reason, for example, because your property is a listed building or in a conservation area, then non-compliance is likely to be justified.
Ultimately, if you have not made reasonable adjustments you run the risk of being sued. There is no statutory enforcing body, so the enforcers of the Act are likely to be individuals, probably supported by a disability rights group. The Disability Rights Commission is already looking into cases where people with disabilities have found it impossible or unreasonably difficult to access services. In one case, a hair salon that moved its washbasins upstairs received a complaint from a disabled customer who could not have her hair washed as a result.
The Department for Work and Pensions has estimated that the "disabled pound" is worth about £45b a year, so investment in adjustments can be justified from a business perspective. Bear in mind also that adjustments may help others, such as parents with young children, as well as the disabled.
by Philippa Aldrich Philippa Aldrich is head of property at City law firm Fox Williams.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?>
You can get further practical advice on accessibility issues from the English Tourism Council's business-to-business Web site accessibletourism.org.uk