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In response to growing concerns over the accessibility of stores during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published new guidance to help retailers better assist disabled customers and ensure they are complying with equality law.

The guidance has been sent to CEOs of supermarkets and retail consortiums alongside a letter from EHRC Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath, outlining their legal obligations to help disabled customers.

The letter explains how retailers, including mobility retailers, should anticipate the needs of disabled customers and make reasonable adjustments so that they can shop online or in stores with confidence.

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In the UK, it is a legal requirement that retailers must not discriminate against any customers using their service either in-store or online.

EHRC reminds retailers that failure to comply with equality law – discriminating against customers with protected characteristics like elderly and disabled people – could result in retailers having a claim brought against them, costly compensation fees and reputational damage.

To help retailers ensure their stores are accessible to disabled people, both in-store and online, the new guidance details four steps:

  1. Provide a service that meets the needs of all customers – anticipate, prepare and make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.
  2. Plan ahead to think about the needs of disabled customers – consider and make changes to policies and procedures, as well as provide extra support and equipment, where necessary.
  3. Communicate – inform customers about how they will be supported through a variety of ways such as easy to read signs and spoken announcements. EHRC says that retailers should ask disabled people if they need extra help. The guidance also reminds retailers that some customers may need staff to take off their face masks if they rely on lipreading.
  4. Staff training – ensure that staff are supported with the right tools to help disabled customers, in line with the latest government guidelines on coronavirus (COVID-19). This includes training staff on hidden disabilities and showing them how they can support disabled customers, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Shopping has changed for everyone during the pandemic. We’ve read extraordinary stories of the efforts made by retailers and by voluntary groups to provide help where it was needed. Nevertheless, a task which already carried particular challenges and barriers for disabled people has become almost impossible for some.

“We have heard of a range of concerns, from long queues with no rest places, to lack of awareness about particular health conditions that mean people are exempt from wearing a mask.

“Coronavirus has exposed some of the worst inequalities in our society and disabled people are facing particular hardship. No matter what decisions and actions are made, all retailers have a legal duty to abide by equality law. It is essential that disabled people are not left behind as retailers continue to meet the challenges of the ongoing pandemic.”

The guidance adds that making reasonable adjustments for disabled people is both an ethical decision and brings retailers financial rewards by expanding their customer base.

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