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A hard act to follow

06 October 2005
A hard act to follow

Introducing the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) has been a drawn-out process. The first parts of the act came into force back in 1995, and 12 months ago the final deadline passed for all service providers to make sure they comply.

However, many firms still haven't made all the necessary changes. Why? Because the parameters of the legislation are still unclear.

The act states that service providers have to make "reasonable adjustments" to any physical barrier that may prevent a disabled person using their service. But there is no rulebook defining what is "reasonable", other than an understanding that providers will not be expected to make changes that they can't afford.

"I'm a solicitor, and I find it a difficult piece of legislation to interpret," says David Driver, legal director at Configure, a commercial disability access consultancy. "I spend all my days explaining what ‘reasonable adjustment' means, and at the moment we can't say what it definitely is."

Understandably, this means that many service providers have held off making expensive changes until the law becomes clearer, which won't happen until test cases have gone through the courts.

"It's very difficult to know which approach is the right one," says Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association. "At this stage the rules are still relatively unknown, as there has been little feedback from the Disability Rights Commission over the past year. Some firms have made expensive adjustments; others are simply waiting to see what happens."

Jonathan Havenhand, property director at La Tasca, says he is holding fire on some adjustments. "We've taken steps out and put ramps in, but we haven't knocked down any walls, as we don't think that's reasonable. Ninety per cent of our sites are less than five years old and have disabled toilets and ramps. However, a number of sites are listed buildings. To put a stair lift in a beautiful old building seems unreasonable, as the cost of converting premises is huge. It costs £20,000 to put stair lifts in, and door openers are £3,500 each," he says.

Older buildings seem to be causing the most problems. "If the property is listed, English Heritage won't let you make certain changes. So if you have a Grade I faade, this would take precedence over the DDA's need to provide a ramp," explains Couchman.

Craig Turner is manager of the Blue Lion, a 350-year-old listed inn near Leyburn, North Yorkshire. "We've had to get planning permission just to mess around with door sizes. Every door is either wood or stone, and no two are the same size. To fit new doors so they keep their original look costs £1,200 each. If we have to do the lot, it will be cost-prohibitive. We wanted to build some extra bedrooms and it's taken 18 months to get permission. To comply with the full act would cost a great deal of money, so we're just doing what we can," he says.

One point yet to be clarified is whether someone in a wheelchair has the right to access every part of a building or just certain parts. If rules are tightened, this could be a problem for hotels which provide disabled-access rooms on the ground floor only. "If a hotel offers different-grade rooms on different levels, but disabled rooms are all on one level at one price, it could be seen as discrimination," says Driver.

Providing full disabled toilets is proving problematic for smaller establishments, as they are expensive and take up lots of space.

However, Driver says that many firms do not realise they can provide ambulant toilet facilities for about £100. This basically means fitting two U-shaped grab rails on either side of a urinal or two horizontal grab rails in a cubicle. Ninety-seven per cent of wheelchair users are able to walk free from their chair, so as long as there is room near the toilet to park the wheelchair, grab bars are sufficient for most. "There should not be a single restaurant or hotel without grab bars in at least one toilet," says Driver.

There is a misconception that building work should take precedence, when out of 11 million disabled people only three million are wheelchair users. "The rules want people to spend time and money making changes in the most appropriate way. Many people are making changes in the wrong order - focusing on building work and spending a lot of money while ignoring the needs of other disabled people, such as providing large-print menus," says Driver.

The act is also about making sure staff understand the needs of disabled people and what they need to do to deliver services equally. "All firms should check if customers have any special needs in advance, so when they arrive you can make sure they are taken care of.

"There is no excuse not to do this," says Couchman.

Training staff is key. If a customer with a hearing impairment was lip reading and the member of staff was, for example, chewing gum or facing away when talking, they wouldn't be able to understand what was being said. "The majority of disabled people - about eight million - have sensory impairments. Staff can make a bigger impact by understanding the needs of this group than any building work can," says Driver.

Providing Braille menus poses difficulties if menus change daily. However, there are ways around this. For example, Turner has introduced a "spoken word" menu, where a member of staff reads options to customers.

Half the battle with the DDA is understanding where changes need to be made. Driver says it is likely that firms will be assessed on how well they are prioritising changes. "I think this is the way legislation will go. If you do not acknowledge you need to make changes and make no plans to prioritise changes, it will be hard to argue that you have acted reasonably. Acknowledge the problem and put a plan in place," he says.

The reason why so many firms are struggling with the act is not down to expense - the law says that only changes that are practical and affordable should be made. It is down to misconceptions over what "reasonable" means. Until we see some test cases go through court, the pace of change is likely to remain slow.

Examples of ‘reasonable' physical changes

  • Ensuring premises are well lit, where appropriate, and providing well defined signs.

  • Installing an induction loop for people with a hearing impairment.

  • Installing a permanent ramp and a handrail at the entrance to buildings where there are steps.

  • Providing an accessible area, such as a low-level desk at reception, for wheelchair users.

  • www.direct.gov.uk

Troublesome areas

  • Under the DDA, service providers only need to make changes that are "reasonable" - however, it is still unclear what this includes.

  • It may not be possible to make structural changes to buildings that are listed because national heritage organisations will not always allow it.

  • Wheelchair users account for the minority of the disabled population, but many firms are focusing on access and overlooking other disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments.

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