Retailers have brushed off a call from the equality watchdog for supermarkets to ensure that disabled people can shop for food and other essentials during the pandemic crisis.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said a mass legal action being taken by more than 300 disabled people suggested “systemic” discrimination by the major supermarkets.
The commission said the industry had failed to acknowledge that it had legal duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act.
In an open letter to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the watchdog’s chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said retailers had failed to acknowledge disabled people’s right to live independently.
The consortium previously told EHRC (PDF) that the “primary aim” of supermarkets during the crisis had been to help ensure that “clinically shielded groups” identified by the government “could easily access food without added risks to their health”.
But Hilsenrath told BRC in her letter that the definition of disability under the Equality Act was “much wider than the Government’s definition for shielded individuals” and by only supporting shielded individuals “your members risk leaving many disabled people isolated and unable to shop for essentials”.
She pointed out that there were also concerns about the way shielded individuals had been treated.
Hilsenrath told the consortium that EHRC was reviewing more than 300 legal cases being taken against supermarkets by disabled people who have alleged that they have been discriminated against, through a class action managed by solicitors Fry Law.
She said: “Issues are wide ranging and include websites which aren’t accessible, visually impaired people refused the support of sighted carers, wheelchair users refused support in accessing high shelves, people with hidden disabilities such as certain diets or autism unable to access items that they need due to policies limiting the number of items, people with mobility difficulties not being able to rest in long queues and many more.”
Hilsenrath said disabled people were “facing particular hardship as a result of the pandemic and are entitled to be able to rely on their rights”, and she said she was “keen to understand” what action the industry was taking to support its disabled customers.
But when asked by Disability News Service for a response to the EHRC letter, Andrew Opie, BRC’s director of food and sustainability, dismissed the commission’s concerns.
He said: “Retailers have a long and proud record in serving vulnerable and disabled consumers.
“We have prioritised hundreds of thousands of customers in the clinically shielded group for online delivery, special hours for the elderly, and dedicated access for disabled groups and carers.
“Nonetheless, safety remains the highest priority and retailers cannot implement changes that would put other staff or customers at risk.
“We are disappointed the EHRC has failed to appreciate the enormous steps retailers and their workers have made to serve customers in these exceptionally challenging times.”
In response, an EHRC spokesperson said: “We understand, and have recognised, the extraordinary challenges facing the retail sector in the current circumstances.
“But now more than ever retailers have a legal duty to ensure the people who need their goods and services the most can access them safely.
“We look forward to hearing from the BRC formally whilst we review the legal claims shared with us.”
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
The Department of Health and Social Care
National Survivor User Network
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