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Will you snub the disabled?

Tough new regulations will force dealers to improve access to showrooms for disabled people or face harsh penalties. From October 1, dealers will have to make sure they remove all physical barriers that make it difficult for disabled people to use their services.

Maria Eagle, the Government's disability minister, is warning that businesses failing to cater for disabled people will face court action. “Disabled people have the right to the same opportunities in their daily life as anybody – whether going to the shops, socialising or playing sport.”

The message from the Department for Work and Pensions is blunt: The law is changing and if dealers don't change with it they could find themselves in court. Think it won't happen to you? Cut-price airline Ryanair found itself in the dock after forcing a disabled passenger to pay to use a wheelchair because he was unable to walk to the check-in desk. Bob Ross, a community worker with cerebral palsy and arthritis, said it was discriminatory to be charged £18 for the wheelchair. He was awarded £1,336 in compensation although Ryanair plans to appeal.

Now the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is launching an awareness campaign to alert organisations that need to improve accessibility called Open4All. Doing nothing is not an option. The dealer who says “I have no disabled customers” will lose the argument. So will the retailer who, worryingly, told AM: “We don't want this type of customer.”

The move is part of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which aims to protect disabled people against discrimination – both in employment and when using a service. Implementation began in 1996 when it became illegal to treat disabled people less favourably because of their disability.

Phase two happened in 1999 when businesses had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff like providing additional support or equipment. Previously, firms with less than 15 employees were exempt from the legislation, but now all businesses will have to ensure their premises remove access barriers. These “reasonable adjustments” include installing ramps for wheelchair users, putting up clearer signs for visually impaired customers and installing an induction loop for deaf people. The rules also cover staff behaviour to disabled customers and employees. Agencies like the DRC and the Centre for Accessible Environments warn that precisely what constitutes a reasonable adjustment will be open to interpretation until the rules are tested in court and a precedent set. The DRC, which will act as the official watchdog, is expected to bring some early test cases to help clarify the law. The Federation of Small Businesses, meanwhile, is asking the Govern-ment to allow the cost of alterations to attract a 100% tax allowance this year instead of 25%.

There is an economic argument for improving disabled access. The DRC estimates that disabled people's spending power is worth up to £50bn and they argue that ignoring the new rules means losing customers. Motability is urging retailers to see it as a sales opportunity. “Why merely comply when you could shout about it? When providing facilities for disabled people, tell them what you're doing and capitalise on it,” it says. A recent DRC survey found that 67% of disabled would tell their family and friends to use an alternative service if they can't get access. Catherine Casserley, senior legislation adviser at the DRC, says dealers should not be frightened of the legislation. “Although the rules can look quite onerous, changes that dealers make to their business will bring in business. Look at what services your business provides and ask whether or not you can provide them to disabled people.”

If the answer is no, then dealers need to start taking action. Post-October, the DRC will be looking at each sector and already has the power to commission investigations and help bring civil proceedings to court.

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