Since December 1996, it has been unlawful for service providers or employers to treat disabled people less favourably. From October 2004, all employers must make reasonable adjustments to their premises where a physical feature makes it difficult for disabled people to make use of their services, or else provide those services by some other means.
But a straw poll of delegates at the Caterer Group's Breakfast Wake-Up event at the City Inn Westminster hotel last week revealed that fewer than a quarter felt able to judge whether or not their businesses were yet compliant with the law.
Particular concern focused on interpretation of the law's phrase, "reasonable adjustment". The DDA does not define the word "reasonable", leaving operators to decide whether they have done enough to comply.
Keynote speaker Rod Robb, of the Disability Rights Commission, reassured delegates that the commission regarded the law only as a "weapon of last resort", adding that "perfect access" wasn't required in all cases. But he said that what was deemed reasonable would depend upon the resources available to individual companies; and he warned wealthy service providers that they would be expected to be "flawless" in their application of the law.
Robb pointed to the moral, business and legal imperatives of compliance. "Disabled people are going to get choosy about where they do their business," he said, and those service providers that are seen to embrace the DDA can expect to win a share of the estimated £50b purchasing power of disabled people in the UK.
"Take credit for what you achieve," he advised. "Disabled people will want to come to places that work for them."
Robb also stressed the need to get advice from disabled people when you are auditing your premises and services. "If you involve disabled people, they won't be slow in telling you what works and doesn't work," he said. "Audit, plan, consult with disabled people, get advice, budget and make changes."
Chris Grace, of IndividuAll, told delegates it was important to have a pragmatic approach to compliance, and said that the costliest solution to an access issue was not always the best. For example, Grace recommended that operators should train staff to approach disabled people and take drinks orders from them, rather than rebuilding a bar area to incorporate a wheelchair-height ordering point. He also suggested valet parking as a low-cost means of facilitating access for disabled drivers.
His comments were reinforced by Michael North, director of operations at City Inn Hotels, who echoed the importance of staff training. He advised delegates that compliance hinges upon having the "systems and processes in place" to treat every guest, disabled or otherwise, as an individual.
Caterer Group Breakfast Wake-Ups Last week's Disability Discrimination Act event was the first in a new series of Caterer Group business briefings offering solid advice on the biggest issues facing the hospitality sector. Upcoming Wake-Ups include:
December 2004: Combating the industry's drugs and alcohol problem
January 2005: Promoting healthy eating in schools and workplaces
March 2005: Profiting from pub food
May 2005: Starting your own business