It is unlawful to discriminate against persons with a disability by:
- Refusing or deliberately omitting to provide any service which is offered to or provided to members of the public, or a section of the public
- Providing a service of a lower (inferior) standard or quality
- Providing a service in a worse manner
- Providing a service on less favourable terms
It is not necessary for customers to prove that you intended to discriminate against them, they only have to show that they received less favourable treatment.
What disabilities does the law cover?
Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Remember that disability does not just cover physical / mobility impairments, but includes people with:
- Sight impairments
- Hearing impairments
- Learning disabilities
- Severe disfigurements
Further information is available in The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s ‘Definition of Disability' publication (pdf).
How should I make adjustments for persons with a disability?
As a service provider, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable persons with a disability to access your services. This may mean changing your practices, policies or procedures if they make it difficult for persons with a disability to access a service, providing extra help or changing the way a particular service is delivered.
- Providing appropriate disability awareness training for frontline staff so they can provide assistance to people with learning disabilities, blind people, deaf people, people with mental health difficulties and people with mobility impairments when these people access your service.
- Making changes to equipment such as providing a text phone for deaf people, installing induction loops for people with hearing loss or supplying adapted trolleys in shopping centres, etc.
- Making literature available in alternative formats and websites more accessible for people who are blind and / or have sight loss.
Where a physical feature makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult to access services, service providers have a duty to take reasonable steps to:
- Remove, alter or avoid the feature; and / or
- Provide an alternative method of accessing the service.
Each business or organisation provides a unique service and this, in turn, affects the reasonable adjustments required to make a business accessible to as many persons with a disability as possible.
The duties placed on service providers towards persons with a disability are ‘anticipatory’. This means that you need to consider the requirements of persons with a disability in general and not the individual requirements of each customer with a disability that may come to use their service. The needs of persons with a disability should be considered in advance, rather than waiting until a person with a disability wants to use the service you offer.
- A bank makes a bank statement available in large print for a person with sight loss or provides a sign language interpreter for a deaf person who is applying for a mortgage.
- A leisure centre installs a text-phone in its reception to ensure that deaf and hearing-impaired customers are able to contact the centre regarding opening times, exercise classes or other facilities. The leisure centre advertises the text-phone on brochures and its website.
- A restaurant has a policy of not allowing dogs onto its premises. A customer arrives with an assistance dog and a reasonable adjustment is made to this policy, allowing the dog in the restaurant.
Every Customer Counts:
The "Every Customer Counts" initiative supports traders seeking to promote accessible services. It includes an easy to follow three-step process including a self-audit checklist, action plan template and customer service statement.
Am I liable for the actions of my employees?
As a service provider, you are legally responsible for the actions of your employees in the course of their employment. An employee who discriminates against a customer with a disability will usually be regarded as acting in the course of their employment, even if you have issued express instructions not to discriminate. This is called “vicarious liability”.
However, in legal proceedings against a service provider based on the actions of an employee, it is a defence that the service provider took 'such steps as were reasonably practicable' to prevent such actions. A policy on disability, which is communicated to employees, is likely to be central to such a defence. It is not a defence for the service provider simply to show that the action took place without its knowledge or approval.
What are the benefits to my business?
Adopting an inclusive approach can have practical benefits for your business. It should be remembered that:
- 20% of people in Northern Ireland have a disability (includes hearing, visual and cognitive impairments as well as with physical disabilities). This equates to 360,000 potential customers.
- 40% of households in Northern Ireland include a disabled resident.
- £80 billion pounds is spent by disabled customers in the United Kingdom each year.
The improvements you make may also broaden your customer base.
- Friends and families accompanying persons with a disability;
- Customers with pushchairs or carrying heavy shopping or luggage;
- Customers with prams, pushchairs or young children; and
- Older customers who may not consider themselves to be disabled but who appreciate easier access.
Download The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s fact sheet - 'Why Access Mean Business' (pdf).
Are there any exceptions?
Services not available to the public, such as those provided by private clubs, are not covered. However, where a club does provide services to the public then the law applies to those services. For example, a private golf club refuses to admit a golfer with a disability to its membership. The law does not cover this. However, if the golf club hires out its facilities for a wedding reception, the law applies to this service. If the club allows non-members to use the course, a refusal to allow a golfer with a disability to play is likely to be subject to the law.
Private clubs are generally those where membership is a condition of participation and members have to comply with a genuine process of selection, usually by a club committee operating the club rules.
However, commercially run businesses, which may require membership such as a health club or a video rental shop would normally still be providing services to the public and, therefore, would be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).
Every customer counts: promoting accessible services:
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has developed the "Every Customer Counts" initiative to support Northern Ireland traders seeking to promote accessible services. Their goal is to encourage businesses to consider how open their services currently are to persons with a disability.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is also committed to providing additional support to anyone seeking to make adjustments to their current arrangements.
Read more at: www.equalityni.org/everycustomercounts
- Further information is also available in their 'Code of Practice' (pdf)
- Download their revised Equality Policy for Service Providers (Word doc)
You can also contact The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to discuss your plans and get additional support and guidance.