What is accessibility?

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Sunday, Patrick McGeough, CEO of Para Dance UK outlines what you should be doing to make your organisation accessible for all. 

Many organisations have taken great strides in recent years to give disabled customers an improved experience, but have you considered the accessibility of all parts of your facility?  

If you haven’t, this could be because you don’t have practical policies and procedures in place. You may not have considered physical access. For example, do you have a useable accessible toilet, or if you have stairs and a customer cannot use them what other alternatives can you consider? Have management, coaches, employees and volunteers received training? They may not have considered the experience from the perspective of a disabled person. If all your materials are in block capitals or have no colour definition is that accessible? If someone has a visual impairment how would they access your website? 

All of these are questions I have been asked as a disabled person and as a CEO of a charity and it’s not always easy to know the answer, especially when you consider that in the UK there are more than 11 million people with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness. The needs of these people may not be immediately evident – not everyone is using a wheelchair! For organisations from blue chip companies through to a local dance studio, this means planning for a broad range of needs. 

So where is the best place to start? Personally I would recommend you don’t panic, but you may want to consider some of the following points: 

  • Keep any counters in the reception area of your facility clear at all times; 

  • Where there are corners, steps, and edges, mark these with high visibility contrasting coloured material so that they can be easily seen; 

  • Keep walkways and accessible parking access clear and free from clutter, and make sure your premises are well lit. Keep any bushes, trees, or flower arrangements near your business clipped so there are no low hanging hazards or overgrown bushes obstructing the path of travel for those using wheelchairs or other mobility aids; 

  • Doors that are heavy and hard to open can be very difficult to use for the elderly or people who use wheelchairs or mobility aids. Adjust closers so that the doors require less force to open; 

  • In bathrooms, make sure wastebaskets or other moveable objects do not obstruct clear spaces next to the doors. Similarly, in accessible wheelchair stalls, keep the area around the toilet and under the sink clear. Doing so makes sure that persons using wheelchairs can safely operate the door and navigate; 

  • Welcome service animals. If you don’t know or are not sure, ask; 

  • When choosing signage, language matters. Instead of signs that use the word “handicapped” – which is considered offensive by many people with disabilities – opt for signs that use the word “accessible”; 

  • Consider how persons with disabilities will be evacuated from your facility in an emergency, and include that procedure in your emergency evacuation plan. Make sure your employees know the procedure; 

  • Offer awareness training for all. Make sure that everyone understands good language and communication; 
  • Always ask first if a person with a disability needs assistance, never assume; 

  • If a person with a disability requests that you modify a policy or provide additional assistance, consider the request meaningfully. There may be a legal requirement to do it. For example, if you require a driver’s licence as evidence of identification consider accepting another form of identification for an individual who is blind or physically unable to drive a vehicle; 

  • Customer feedback is a great opportunity to learn about your customers and their thoughts on how accessible your business actually is. Be open to receiving feedback and act on it. You may be preventing a lawsuit in the process. 

All of these points typically will come under four main headings, can you say you have considered all of these areas? 

  1. Physical access 
  2. Awareness training 
  3. Policy and procedures 
  4. Marketing, communications and websites 

Ultimately, you should have nothing to fear from meeting disabled customer needs.