In the US alone, there are around 61 million adults living with a disability. Over 7 million have an intellectual impairment, while 39 million are struggling with a motor impairment of some kind. Figures like this prompt us to ask: are we doing enough to accommodate the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens?
One area where there is still much progress to be made is in the retail sector. Despite a few notable exceptions, most stores are not particularly accessible to people with disabilities. This can make it difficult for those individuals to do things like shopping for groceries or clothes, or even getting around the store.
Imagine how exhausting life would be if every grocery store felt like a marathon race. When the world you live in isn’t set up for you, it’s an extra challenge that most of us can’t even comprehend. This is the reality for many people with disabilities, and it’s something we need to start addressing as a society.
As a store owner, how can you make your business more accessible to people with disabilities? In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways you can make your store more welcoming and accommodating.
Why is accessibility important?
In 2020, a book by author Sara Hendren called ‘What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World’ posed a challenging question to the design community: is disability a medical phenomenon a medical one, or is it a social one?
Considering that we are the people who build our stairs without adjacent ramps and our public transportation without wheelchair access, Hendren believes it to be the latter. Here’s an excellent quote that sums up her argument:
“In a social model [of disability], the interaction between the conditions of the body and the shapes of the world that makes disability into a lived experience, and therefore a matter not only for individuals but also for societies.”
Mental and physical ailments are not going to disappear from society, so it is therefore up to us – the architects, city planners, and indeed, store owners – to make our world a more inclusive place for everyone. Otherwise there will be an ever-growing population of people who are marginalized and ostracized from the mainstream.
Accessibility in retail: why it matters
When faced with the issue of retail inaccessibility, many people wrongly assume that a poor in-store experience can be easily solved by simply ordering groceries and clothes online. However, this is neglecting the fact that people with disabilities should not have to compromise for society; our stores should be designed to meet their needs, as well.
There are a number of reasons why accessible retail matters. First and foremost, it’s simply the right thing to do. People with disabilities should have equal access to the same services and products as everyone else. Ordering your groceries won’t make up for the exercise and social aspects of going to the store, and trying on clothes in-person is still the best way to find the perfect fit.
In addition, making your store more accessible can actually be good for business. A Click-Away Pound survey conducted in the UK found that, by ignoring the needs of shoppers with disabilities, retailers were potentially missing out on £11.75 billion. It’s important to note, however, that this is not the sole reason for making your store more accessible.
The negative consequences of inaccessible retail
At this point, many articles focus on the financial ramifications of inaccessible retail and how it negatively impacts both shoppers and businesses. It’s a fair enough observation, of course – the population of people with disabilities is not insignificant, and it’s only growing.
Far more important to consider, however, is the impact that inaccessible retail has on the daily lives of people with disabilities. Empathy is key here.
When a business fails to make reasonable accommodations for its customers with disabilities, it sends the message that these individuals are not welcome and that their needs are not important. This can lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion, which have a significant negative impact on mental health.
Here are a few negative situations that can occur as a result of inaccessible retail:
- Injuries in-store due to a lack of infrastructure, excessive mess, or malfunctioning equipment
- Difficulty accessing products or services, resulting in a need to travel further afield
- Exclusion from social activities due to a lack of accessible venues
- Stress and anxiety caused by the inability to participate in everyday activities
Inaccessible retail can also be a major obstacle when it comes to living an independent life. For example, if you’re a person with a visual impairment and the only store in your town is inaccessible, you may have no choice but to rely on others for help with basic tasks like grocery shopping.
Needless to say, the consequences of inaccessible retail are far-reaching and extend beyond the individual. It’s up to businesses to take the necessary steps to make their stores more accessible, and in doing so, create a more inclusive society for everyone.
How to make your store more accessible: 5 actionable steps
Interested in making your retail store accessible to those living with disabilities? Here are five actionable steps you can take to get started:
1. Do some solid research
Before you can begin to assess your retail store and make some positive changes, it’s crucial to gain insight into the lives of people with disabilities. What challenges do they face on a daily basis? How can your retail store be more accommodating and barrier-free?
Part of this research should be gaining awareness of the different types of disabilities, too. It’s not just people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments who may need accessibility features in a retail store. Auditory, cognitive, and physical disabilities also exist and require various types of accommodations.
Once you have a good understanding of the needs of those living with disabilities, it’ll be much easier to design an action plan that meets (or exceeds) their expectations.
2. Assess your surroundings
Equipped with the knowledge of what people with disabilities need, it’s time to take a look at your retail store and assess its current accessibility. Use your research to make a list of the physical barriers that may be preventing customers from accessing your products or services.
Some common obstacles include:
- Narrow doorways and aisles that are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair
- Stairs or lack of ramps
- Lack of signage indicating the location of restrooms, exits, or other important areas
- Poor lighting or excessive glare
- Noise levels that are too loud or overwhelming
Take down notes of all the changes that need to be made, then get to work making them happen!
3. Install features for added accessibility
Clearing up pathways, adding ramps, and installing grab bars are all common physical changes that can be made to a retail store to increase accessibility. But there are also many more creative solutions that can be put into place with just a bit of extra effort.
Some ideas include:
- Offering handheld mirrors and magnifying glasses so customers with visual impairments can see products more clearly
- Placing Braille signage next to traditional signage
- Offering a wider range of product sizes to accommodate those with different physical needs
- Creating designated quiet areas for those who need a break from the noise and crowds
These are going above and beyond what most retail stores currently offer, so you’ll be making an important statement by implementing them.
4. Train your staff on disability etiquette
It’s not just the physical environment of your store that needs to be accessible, but the attitudes and interactions of your staff, too. All employees should be familiar with basic disability etiquette so they can provide excellent customer service to everyone who walks through your doors.
Part of your training should be devoted to in-depth education on what people with disabilities experience in your store. With a deeper understanding of their needs, your staff will be better equipped to provide assistance and accommodations when needed.
5. Stay updated on changing regulations
The laws and regulations surrounding disability accessibility are constantly changing. As we gradually learn more about the needs of those living with disabilities, the requirements for businesses also evolve – so it’s important to stay up-to-date.
One way to ensure you’re always compliant is to work with a professional who specializes in accessibility. They can help audit your store, make recommendations for changes, and keep you informed of any updates or new legislation that may impact your business.
Otherwise, there are a few key places to stay up-to-date on the latest accessibility news:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website
- The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division website
- National Council on Disability website
Being overly cautious and implementing all the changes recommended by accessibility professionals can be costly, but it’s an important investment to make. Not only are you increasing your store’s accessibility, but you’re also sending a message that everyone is welcome and valued customers.
The world in 2022 is far more accommodating than it’s been in the past, but for retailers, there’s still a long way to go. The focus on accessibility in the retail industry has been slowly increasing, however – and by implementing the changes and adjustments recommended in this article, your store can be more accessible to everyone.
About Francesca Nicasio
Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.