Disability laws require all retailers to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that their properties and services do not discriminate against disabled customers. All dealers must now ensure that they provide the same level of service to customers of any ability.
This includes tackling physical features of their premises, such as steps, kerbs, narrow doorways and parking spaces, which would make it unreasonably difficult for a wheelchair user to access their business. It applies inside the premises, too, and can affect the use of high counters and raised turntables if a disabled customer cannot access information or examine vehicles on display.
Jean-Paul Gaudin, managing director of automotive mystery shopping company Rockingham Northampton, says the prestige brand dealerships he’s visited are generally up to standard, largely helped by better margins and newer showrooms. But among the volume brands many showrooms are “still miles away” from meeting disabled customers’ needs, some 18 months since they were legally required to act.
Parking is often of great concern to disabled customers, especially when a dealership is in a city centre
He adds: “Certain dealerships are abysmal, particularly in the centres of major cities and towns where there’s no parking available or there are steps up to the dealership. The small, privately-owned dealers who’ve been operating the same business for years are some of the worst; if they only get few disabled visitors they won’t take action.”
While some dealers are putting off alterations until they begin a major showroom refurbishment, others simply don’t want to spend money because they are rarely visited by disabled customers, says Gaudin, who has been a wheelchair user since a motorcycle accident in the late Nineties. Some get around the issue by offering to bring a demonstrator to a disabled customer’s home instead of inviting them to the dealership.
“Car dealerships are probably one of the better retail segments that cater for the disabled, purely because they must have a flat floor and large doors to get cars into the showroom,” says Gaudin. Yet he has still visited showrooms where cars and furniture are placed so close together there’s no wheelchair access, and where the disabled toilet, when there is one, is used as a store room.
The Disability Rights Commission advises dealers that their duty is not just to put a ramp at the front entrance but to look at all aspects of their services and consider what changes they can make to the full range of physical features.
A DRC spokesman adds: “You may plan a number of changes as part of a refurbishment or a continuing access improvement programme. Something which might not be considered a reasonable adjustment now could well be considered reasonable in future. Access should not be considered once and then forgotten.”
The DRC encourages dealers who need to improve their premises to contact a disability access officer at their local authority’s planning department, who can visit and give advice on specific improvements.