Small firms risking court by overlooking deaf customers

Most not preparing for upcoming disability law

Over two-thirds of UK small businesses are not planning to make their services more accessible to deaf customers, putting them at risk of being sued when new disability legislation becomes law next year, according to new research.

Amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act mean that all businesses, no matter what size, have to make their premises or services user-friendly to disabled people by 1 October 2004.

The Act requires small firms to make changes to their workplaces to ensure that disabled staff and customers have easy access or to offer their products or services in a different way, or risk prosecution and personal legal claims.

However, a new study by the RNID charity found that 69 per cent of small businesses are not planning to make any changes to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing customers are able to use their services.

Just two per cent of those questioned said they planned to either train their staff in deaf awareness, install a loop system for hearing aid users or provide communication support.

The survey found that just one in 50 small firms had already made the changes necessary under the Act.

Worryingly, 14 per cent of businesses were totally unaware of the upcoming laws.

The legislation, when it comes into force next year, will require companies to make “reasonable adjustments” if it is “impossible or unreasonably difficult” for deaf people to access its services or products.

The government has promised to deal harshly with firms that have made no provision for disabled people, and has urged small businesses to carry out the necessary changes to their workplaces.

Dr John Low, chief executive of RNID, said that deaf and hard of hearing customers are not expecting significant and costly changes to be made by small businesses.

“But under the Act they do have the right to call for ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made.

“Given that the spending power of disabled people in the UK is estimated at £50 billion a year, it also makes good business sense for small enterprises to take proactive steps to make their services more accessible,” he said.

Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said that small businesses are able to adopt a flexible approach to meet the needs of their deaf and hard of hearing customers.

“By doing this they can show how consumer focused they really are, while avoiding potential court action from dissatisfied customers.

“RNID’s research highlights the need for small businesses to make minor adjustments to their business by October 2004,” he said.

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