As Covid-19 related restrictions continue, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reminded retailers of their duty not to discriminate against any customers, with particular reference to their obligations to the disabled.

Noting that shopping has changed for everyone, the EHRC sent guidance to the CEOs of supermarkets and retail consortiums together with a letter from the Chief Executive of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, detailing their legal obligations to help disabled customers.

The guide sets out four steps in ensuring that retailers are not discriminating against customers and that they are fulfilling their obligations to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers, as follows:

1.     Provide a service that meets all customer needs

Customers should not be discriminated against either directly or indirectly. When considering the needs of disabled customers, retailers should make reasonable adjustments for them.

2.     Plan ahead for your customer needs

Retailers should also anticipate and prepare in advance for disabled customers and their needs, to include consideration of a store’s policies, procedures and physical environment and implementation of changes where needed. This could be by way of the provision of extra support or equipment.

3.     Communicate with customers

It is important that the support and changes that are available are communicated to customers and that they are asked if they need extra support. The information provided should be given in a variety of ways, such as clear, easy to read signs and spoken announcements. Staff may need to remove masks for those who read lips.

4.     Provide staff training

Staff should be trained in how to help customers shop safely, taking social distancing into account. They should be shown how to support customers with a range of disabilities, to include those that are not visible.

They should be aware of the government guidelines on face coverings to make sure they don’t discriminate against those who cannot wear them or who are accompanied by people whose lips need to be read and so will not be wearing them.

In the letter accompanying the guidance, Hilsenrath 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 importance of complying with the EHRC guidance

It is not only good practice to comply with the guidance in full to ensure that disabled customers can shop either in-store or online without difficulty and to maintain a good reputation, it is also a legal necessity.

If it can be shown that a store discriminated against someone because of a protected characteristic such as disability or age, a claim for compensation could be brought.

As disruption caused by the pandemic continues, retailers need to continue to assess their services, both online and in-store, to ensure that the needs of those with a disability are met and that they do not experience any discrimination.

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