The full force of the Disability Discrimination Act can now be brought to bear on hospitality operators. Graeme Cushion examines one specific scenario
You own a bar-restaurant which runs over three floors in a very beautiful listed building. The floors are connected by spiral staircases, with more traditional staircases providing fire escapes to the rear of the premises. You are concerned about the inaccessibility to disabled people of both the upper floors and also the main entrance at the front of the premises, which features five broad stone steps.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has come into force in various stages, the last of which took effect on 1 October 2004. The full legislation now requires service providers, including the operators of licensed premises, to make "reasonable adjustments" to their premises to accommodate the needs of disabled persons.
Should any disabled person feel that they are not receiving the same standard of service as an able-bodied person, they can commence civil proceedings against the service provider under this legislation.
The law quite rightly expects that service providers give consideration to a whole range of disabilities, which are detailed in the legislation.
A common mistake is to consider the problems of wheelchair users while ignoring a host of other disabilities relating to sight, hearing, etc.
The concerns raised in the scenario outlined above relate, for the most part, to limitations of the premises which are likely to affect those with a physical disability.
For the moment, then, let us assume that you have provided hearing loops and that your menus are available in Braille, etc, etc.
One of the major difficulties in our scenario is the fact that it concerns a listed building. This makes it very difficult for you to carry out alterations to the premises, as listed building consent would certainly be required.
It may be that consent is simply impossible to obtain for the sort of alterations which you would require - for example, installing a lift inside, or even a ramp at the front door.
It must be remembered, though, that there is an element of "reasonableness" in the legislation. This means that, while your starting point should be "what can I do to ensure that no one is unable to gain full access to my premises and facilities?", the process does not stop there. The cost of making the necessary alterations must be considered giving regard to the size of your business.
In short, something akin to a risk assessment should be prepared, where the process of carrying out the adjustments is examined in a realistic way. If the alterations would result in you going out of business, clearly it would be unreasonable to expect you to proceed.
Should the desired alterations be simply too costly, you should consider other alternatives. It might, for example, be possible to train your staff in manual handling techniques so that they are able to assist disabled customers both to enter the premises at ground-floor level and to gain access to the upper-floor areas.
You would have to signpost clearly the availability of such a service to bring it to customers' attention. In this way, your premises and facilities would be equally offered to all customers without structural adjustments being made.
- Consider the types of disabilities which you intend to cater for - clearly, it should be all disabilities.
- Does the alteration you would wish to make require any official consent?
- Balance the cost against the resources of your business, to determine whether the alterations are viable.
- Consider any alternative methods of creating the same result without carrying out physical adjustments to your premises, if these prove too costly.
- Implement your findings.
- Record everything in writing.
The risk to you, the operator, in this scenario is exposure to simple proceedings in the event that a disgruntled customer decides to issue a claim against you. The level of damages that can be awarded can be very high indeed, as could your own legal costs in defending the proceedings - never mind a situation where you are also ordered to pay the plaintiff's costs, having had judgment against you.
It could be more expensive than it would have been to carry out the alterations in the first place.
Contact Graeme Cushion, partner
Poppleston Allen Licensing Solicitors
37 Stoney Street, The Lace Market, Nottingham NG1 1LS.
Tel: 0115 953 8500