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The Equality Act and Accessibility in Commercial Premises

18/04/2018

The law dictates that anyone who visits or works in commercial premises must be able to access those premises and the services provided by the occupier without barriers.  In the United Kingdom, a large percentage of people of working age have a disability. It is inevitable therefore that an employer or manager of commercial premises is, at some point, going to have to take steps to ensure the accessibility of their premises.

The law dictates that anyone who visits or works in commercial premises must be able to access those premises and the services provided by the occupier without barriers.

In the United Kingdom, a large percentage of people of working age have a disability. It is inevitable therefore that an employer or manager of commercial premises is, at some point, going to have to take steps to ensure the accessibility of their premises.

The law on accessibility in commercial premises

There are some key pieces of legislation and regulations that deal with the subject of accessibility and commercial premises.

The Equality Act
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was introduced in 1995, making it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities, or to treat them in a less favourable manner.

In 2004, the legislation was tightened, requiring any organisation providing a service to the public to make ‘reasonable adjustments' to the physical elements of its premises. This had the aim of ensuring disabled people could access the service being provided within the premises.

In 2010, the DDA was incorporated into the Equality Act. In line with the Act, service providers in sectors including goods and services, housing, employment, retail, financial, education, healthcare and transport as well as associations and private clubs are required to make sure there are no barriers to accessing their services. Failure to comply can result in unlimited fines. The Equality Act says that no disabled person should ever be required to pay for reasonable adjustments.

Building Regulations
Commercial buildings and products must comply with current Building Regulations. In England and Wales, Part M of the Building Regulations sets out various requirements concerning access to and the use of buildings with the aim of making sure that people of all abilities are able to access and use buildings and the facilities provided within them.

British Standards
British Standard BS 8300 dictates how buildings should be designed, constructed and maintained so that they provide an accessible and inclusive environment for people who are disabled.

What are ‘Reasonable Adjustments’ as defined by the Equality Act?

The Equality Act says that adjustments only need to be made if it is reasonable to do so. As an employer or premises manager, this could be based on: 
  • How practical it would be to make the changes
  • Whether the adjustment would effectively overcome a disadvantage for disabled persons
  • The size of your organisation
  • Funds and resources available versus the costs involved

 There are three key ways in which you can approach making changes:

Change a physical element
Certain elements of a building may make access for disabled persons more difficult or even impossible. The following are examples of physical changes that may be reasonable to change. You may consider: 

  • Stairways and steps - could lifts or stair lifts could be installed to make upper levels of the building?
  • Pathways and passages - do these need to be widened for wheelchair users? Are there obstacles that could be removed?
  • Doors - is it possible to replace manual doors with automated entry and exit systems? Is it viable to remove doors (other than fire doors) and widen entryways?
  • Washrooms - could any upper floor washroom facilities be relocated to ground level? Or could ground floor washrooms be adapted for disabled use?
  • Security - it is important that your building's security systems are geared towards disabled visitors and workers. Do your access control points suit wheelchair users and partially sighted or blind people? How do you make those who are hard of hearing aware of your audible public announcements? Are your fire alarms suitable for the hard of hearing? What measures do you have in place to evacuate physically disabled or partially sighted or blind people?
For your disabled workers, you may wish to consider: 
  • Accessible storage - low level cabinets, bookshelves and filing units that suit the individual's preferences and comfortable working height. A workstation audit is essential to ascertain what this might be.
  • Height adjustable desks - a desk that adjusts to the optimum working height so that a wheelchair user feels at ease and does not injure themselves whilst working will provide flexibility.
  • Carefully selected office chairs - not all wheelchair users wish to sit in their chairs all day, preferring to move to a regular office chair. It is important to be aware that in switching from a wheelchair to a regular chair, quite a degree of force is required, and the target chair will need to be robust, supportive and stable enough to cope with this. Office chairs with wheels will need to include brakes for obvious reasons. It is also a good idea to consult with your member of staff as to preferences with head and arm rests.
Change how things are done
If it is not possible to physically change something within reasonable bounds, a change to the way things are done could provide an alternative solution. This could mean allowing parking close to accessible entrances, or meetings being held in accessible rooms where they would not usually be permitted. 

Provide additional services or aids

Under the Equality Act, if a disabled person needs particular aids or equipment to help them do or access something, this is known as ‘auxiliary aids and services'. You may be asked for or decide to install or provide any of the following: 

  • Portable induction loops for those with hearing aids
  • A British Sign Language interpreter
  • Alternative format information and signage, e.g. Braille or audio
  • Additional assistance from staff
  • Home visits
  • Emergency assistance alarms in washrooms
  • Disabled refuge areas - these are required under the Building Regulations for all premises of one-storey or more. They provide a safe refuge area for use in emergency situations and include a two-way communication system.

Are you Equality Act compliant in respect of accessibility?

There is clearly a great deal to consider when it comes to legal requirements and accessibility of commercial premises. If you are feeling daunted by your responsibilities in this area, you are welcome to get in touch for assistance.


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