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Accessibility

If you are classed as an employer or service provider under the Equality Act 2010, you have a duty not to discriminate against disabled people. This can involve making physical adjustments to your premises to improve accessibility. You can engage an access auditor to assess your premises, and make recommendations on suitable adaptations. Use the checklist below to carry out a preliminary assessment of your premises.

Access and the Equality Act

The accessibility of your premises will have a huge impact on your organisation. The first question that you need to ask yourself is: am I classed as a service provider, employer, or both, for the purposes of the Equality Act?

The duty not to discriminate, and the requirement to make reasonable adjustments, essentially falls on the tenant rather than the landlord.

Section 39 - Employers

As an employer you have a duty not to treat disabled people less favourably than others for a reason relating to their disability, and to make reasonable adjustments to assist your disabled employees or applicants for employment. This may involve changing the physical features of a premises if these put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to others. The employment duties are triggered when you employ a disabled person, one of your employees becomes disabled or when a disabled person applies for a job.

However, even if you do not currently have any disabled employees it is good practice to think about access issues when undertaking refurbishment work or when you are moving to new premise, as you may employ a disabled person in the future or one of your existing employees may become disabled.

Section 29 - Service Providers

If you are providing a service to members of the public, you are most likely to be classed as a service provider and have a duty to ensure that you do not discriminate against disabled people. This involves making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to policies, procedures and practices, in the provision of auxiliary aids and services and to physical features. This is a general anticipatory duty owed to disabled people at large.

It is recommended that you first consider whether any physical features which create a barrier for disabled people can be removed or altered; if this is not possible, then you should consider a reasonable means of avoiding the physical feature; and if this is not possible either, then you should provide a reasonable alternative of making the service available to disabled people. The duty to make reasonable adjustments affects all service providers, whether the service is provided free or paid for and regardless of the size of the organisation.

Physical features will include steps, stairways, exterior surfaces, doors, gates, toilets, lighting, furniture, signs and so on. Policies, procedures and practices will include things such as allowing assistance dogs in a restaurant or forming a fire evacuation strategy for disabled people. Auxiliary aids and services include, for example, providing information on audiotape, providing a portable ramp or training a member of staff in the use of British Sign Language.

Note that you may be classed as both an employer and a service provider and that there may be areas of your premises that may be classed only as employment areas and others that may be classed as both employment and service areas. An office, where members of the public do not enter, for example, is likely to be an employment area. A reception that members of the public enter, on the other hand, will almost certainly be a service area.

Note that the Equality Act does not only apply to the built environment – a service provided via a website or over the telephone also needs to address access issues and reasonable adjustments may need to be made.

Landlords

The Equality Act includes provisions to enable an employer or service provider to make alterations if the landlord consents. As a landlord you must not unreasonably withhold consent but you may attach reasonable conditions. The adjustments landlords might be required to make will vary from case to case and will depend on the lease, but may include:

•    altering their policies, practices or procedures – for example, visiting tenants to inform them of arrears as opposed to sending letters
•    providing auxiliary aids or services – for example, landlords could use the RNID Typetalk service to communicate with profoundly deaf tenants rather than the standard telephone call used for other tenants
•    changing the terms of a letting (but only in respect of premises that have already been let) – for example, changing a term of tenancy that bans keeping animals to allow for assistance dogs

Landlords are only required to make adjustments that are 'reasonable', and the duty expressly does not require the removal or alteration of a physical feature – but could still affect certain fixtures.

A landlord might be required to make reasonable adjustments to physical features of the common parts of a building if the building contains residential parts(mixed use buildings are included but purely commercial buildings are not), if they are asked to do so by a disabled person who lives at the property.

If you undertake substantial building work, you will have to satisfy Building Control that these changes satisfy the 'Building Regulations Approved Document M: Access to and Use of Buildings', which specifies minimum access standards.  Download the current 2013 edition by following this link.

As a landlord, you may wish to take a stronger stance on disability access.  Certainly, many tenants in the sector will be looking for premises with good disabled access – and if you are seeking grants to subsidise your offer, it will score well with funders.

Reasonable adjustments

What is reasonable will depend from case to case and will vary depending on the type of services being provided, the nature of the service provider and the effect of the impairment on the individual disabled person. These are some of the factors that may be taken into account:

•    the extent to which the steps needed to be taken to remedy the problem are practicable
•    the financial or other costs of making the adjustment
•    the extent of disruption that taking the steps would cause
•    the service providers’ resources
•    the amount of resources already spent
•    the availability of financial or other assistance

See the Equality and Human Rights Commission website for more information on the definition of ‘reasonable’.

Try to find a premises that requires having to make as few physical adjustments as possible. However, it is likely that your move will involve some element of refurbishing and it is advisable that you think about carrying out any access improvements then.

You may want to consider having an access audit of your building carried out. An access audit is an assessment of the accessibility and usability of existing buildings. Those seeking an access consultant may wish to contact the National Register of Access Consultants (NRAC - www.nrac.org.uk), the only accreditation body for access auditors and access consultants in the UK. The NRAC was established by the Centre for Accessible Environments, the UK’s leading authority on inclusive design and access to the built environment for disabled people.

Opening Doors across London is a useful resource on building accessibility from the City Bridge Trust. The publication records the achievements of people who have been through the process of making their buildings accessible for disabled people and provides suggestions on improving the accessibility of your building and explores ways of avoiding any difficulties in process.

Checklist

Here is a downloadable checklist which you can use to help you consider the accessibility of your premises. Remember to think about access from a wide perspective and consider not only wheelchair users but also people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive impairments and so on. Please be aware that completing this checklist is not the same as carrying out a full access audit.

For more information on Equality Act requirements, see the Equality and Human Rights Commission website at www.equalityhumanrights.com. There is guidance for employers here and for service providers here.


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