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Opinion Why do so many businesses ignore the needs of disabled patrons?

If people with disabilities cannot park near your business or access your services, they and their friends won’t give you custom – it’s that simple.

‘WE DON’T WANT your business, able-bodied customers only please!’ Is this the message your company is giving out?

ESRI figures estimate there are 800,000 people with a disability in Ireland. Yet, despite an estimated spending power of €3.3 billion, it would seem a large number of the businesses in Ireland are failing to adequately cater for their customers’ needs.

During the last month I decided to take advantage of the Mediterranean weather we have enjoyed. Each morning I packed my bucket and spade and visited some of the villages at the heart of the tourist industry in my area. As I made my way along the sandy coastline, I took note of the number of disabled parking bays and toilets in each village. My results, at best, could be considered surprising and at worst completely discriminatory.

Snapshot of a wider problem 

In one village I visited only one of the many public houses had these basic facilities. Imagine the difficulties having had two cups of tea or three pints of beer and suddenly finding there are no toilet facilities for 20km. Not very customer friendly.

I began to wonder: is this a snapshot of a wider problem in the rural communities around Ireland? As a country that relies heavily on its tourist industry, I was dismayed to find how poorly it catered for the needs of the elderly and disabled in the community – along with those visiting.

OECD figures tell us that Ireland has an ageing population and will thus see a potential increase in the number of disabled people in our communities. These facilities are not just for the disabled but are for an entire community; ESRI research has shown that most disability is acquired through the course of life, rather than being present from birth or childhood, so it is very possible that many of us will require these facilities at some point our lives.

The rights of the disabled in Ireland are enshrined in legislation. Legislation such as the Equal Status Act or the Disability Act 2005 which provide for the provision of both public and private services. The Equal Status Act states that service providers should do whatever is reasonable to accommodate a person with a disability whose disability prevents them from accessing that service. All service providers are legally expected to abide by this legislation. So, why do so many businesses choose to ignore this important legislation? This failure could lead many in the disabled community to the conclusion that they are not considered a valued customer.

Can you afford to lose business?

Whilst on my travels I identified excellent practises such as equal opportunity employment, helpful staff, and disabled parking among other initiatives. It is equally important that we promote what is done. By building with universal design in mind the environment can be accessed, understood and used by all – regardless of their age, size ability or disability.

However, of the 35 public parking bays provided in the centre of one village I visited, not one was marked as a disabled parking bay. I was subsequently amazed to discover from the Citizens Information that there is no legal obligation on local authorities to provide disabled parking. Surely, we should be provided disabled parking as a right and not just based on a whim or a kind gesture?

The provision of disabled parking along with other supports makes good business sense. If people with disabilities cannot park near your business they cannot access the services you provide. If they cannot access the service, they cannot spend their money. Ask yourself this question: can you afford to lose another customer?

Vivian Rath is a PhD student researching the experience of students with disabilities at third level. He has been involved in the promotion of equal opportunity for people with disabilities for many years and sits as a Director on the Board of AHEAD (Association of Higher Education Access and Disability); is a member of the Kanchi sounding Board; established the first third level wheelchair basketball team in UCD, and co-founded the national third level mental health campaign

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