Disabled people have described the pain and distress they have endured in attempting to buy food during the COVID-19 crisis, with many forced to put up with clear discrimination from their local supermarket.
The accounts collected by Disability News Service (DNS) over the last week build a picture of disabled people struggling to feed themselves, and having to put the health of themselves and their families at risk, while supermarkets fail to adjust their policies and procedures to take account of the barriers their disabled customers are facing.
DNS has heard this week from eight disabled people who say they have faced discrimination from supermarkets as they have attempted to buy food during the COVID-19 crisis.
Their accounts come as solicitors report that more than 200 disabled people are set to take a legal class action for disability discrimination against supermarkets because of the discrimination they say they have faced while trying to buy groceries during the coronavirus crisis (see separate story)*.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to raise its own concerns about the failure of supermarkets to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.
EHRC said its concerns included the availability of online deliveries, the impact of long queues in stores, changes to policies on accompanied shopping, and inaccessible websites and telephone helplines.
Among those particularly hard-hit, according to the accounts heard by DNS this week, are autistic people and those with long-term health conditions who have not been able to secure home deliveries by booking online and say they have faced discrimination when they have had to visit stores instead.
Jacy Chimes is autistic and both her parents have long-term health conditions, including her father, who has been told to self-isolate at home in Surrey.
She says her family have been unable to secure a home delivery from Sainsbury’s.
Her 70-year-old mother, who provides support for her daughter, has found shopping early in the morning during the times kept aside by many supermarkets for “elderly and vulnerable customers” just “defeats the objective” because it is busier than shopping later in the day.
Jacy needs her mother with her when they are shopping but they have to enter separately because the store will not allow them in together, even though she wears her “hidden disabilities sunflower lanyard”.
Jacy said: “The store won’t let her in with me despite her being my carer.
“The only way round this was for one of us to go in first and then wait for the other to come in a little while after. But it’s still distressing.”
They were told it was “store policy” to allow only one adult per household, despite Jacy’s lanyard and the fact that they do not live together.
She said this was putting her mother’s health at risk.
But Jacy said: “She is being put at risk because of these bumbled methods, which are causing more harm than good.
“A 10-minute trip has turned into a much longer one, meaning we are surrounded by people a lot longer than we should be.”
Another autistic person who has faced barriers in trying to secure food during the pandemic is Sarah, who also has multiple chronic health conditions.
She has had to cope with waiting in a queue for 45 minutes, growing increasingly dizzy, because of the lack of seating provided by her local Sainsbury’s store in west London.
She has also been affected by stores that only allow in one person per household.
She shops both at the Sainsbury’s store, and a smaller Co-op store, and says the restrictions at Sainsbury’s have been “zero tolerance without the necessary nuance”.
Sarah said: “Disabled people are being consciously let down by these rules.”
Her experience at the Co-op store in Iver Heath, near Slough, has been of customers rushing other shoppers through the store, which she said was not the fault of staff “who were doing their best to keep people safe and at safe distances”.
She normally shops with her partner, who reminds her what she needs to buy, but has had to shop alone because of the strict rules imposed by the supermarkets, who she has seen turn away pairs of people from the same household.
She said: “I would prefer to be able to go with support, but I know that would instantly identify me as disabled and I would face further discrimination from other shoppers [and] my local supermarket have been extremely strict on one person per household.
“I always wear my sunflower lanyard as I can typically become overwhelmed by the sensory aspects of shopping and needing to remember everything I need to get.”
But she said: “Staff often saw my lanyard and then looked away or were chatting to other staff less than two metres away.
“Once in the shop I might as well have not worn the lanyard, as it meant nothing to staff or other shoppers.”
For those local supermarkets with a set route that shoppers have to take, she finds herself “forced around at a faster pace than I can mentally manage and I’m left at the end of my shop without my essentials as I was rushed”.
For those without a set route, “other members of the public often get too close and I try to follow my usual routine of how I use the shop”.
Either way, the experience is “emotionally and physically draining as no reasonable adjustments are put in place or recognised”.
One disabled woman, Lorna, has praised her local Sainsbury’s in Canley, Coventry, which has allowed her to wait near the entrance for a minute or two before starting her shop – after checking her blue parking badge – rather than joining the queue, and which she said had been “brilliant”.
She said her local Asda store had a similar policy.
But she contrasted that with her experience at the local Costco store, which her family has to pay a membership fee to use.
When she explained to a member of staff that she could not queue because of her impairment, she was told: “So what? Go and wait.”
Her husband, who himself is at risk because of health conditions including asthma, had to reserve her a place in the queue, which she took over when he reached the entrance.
She lodged a complaint about her treatment, but has so far had no response.
The second time she had a similar experience at Costco, she complained again about staff rudeness and the discrimination she faced.
This time a manager phoned back two days later, and told her the store was trying to get “as many people in as possible” and could not give her priority access because “it may be the difference between someone getting toilet rolls and not getting them”.
Eventually, he told her not to return to the store until the pandemic crisis was over.
Lorna said: “I have been back to the shop but my husband has had to stand in the queue and then once at the doors I’ve got out the car and gone in, for which I’ve had terrible looks from other shoppers.”
She has complained to Costco head office but has yet to receive a reply.
Tracey Thompson, from Marton, Middlesbrough, has been unable to secure an online order since 14 March, even though she had previously had a regular order with Asda and Tesco for more than a year.
She said she was lucky that she has been in isolation with her son and daughter-in-law.
She said: “If I hadn’t had people to shop for me, I would have been stuck with no food.
“I know these are unprecedented times, I totally get that and I’m lucky in the fact I have family and friends to help if needed, but I feel so sorry for people who don’t.”
Disabled campaigner and retired Paralympian Chris Channon has been unable to place an order for a supermarket delivery for weeks, even though he relied totally on the service from Sainsbury’s before the crisis.
His last delivery was just before the crisis hit, even though he receives the enhanced rates of personal independence payment for both daily living and mobility.
He said: “I have been housebound since suffering an injury to my neck in 2008 as well as having cerebral palsy from birth.
“The government told everyone that vulnerable people would be given priority delivery slots.
“Naturally I thought I’d qualify given my issues but I was amazed to find that they are not listed on the government website and therefore I cannot get a delivery.
“I’m self-isolating because I don’t fancy my chances with this disease and I’m certainly not confident that they would allow me to occupy an intensive treatment unit bed.
“Yet at the very time that I need my independence it’s been taken away from me by some bureaucratic decision that has been taken by someone who has no reality of the situation on the ground.”
He added: “Yes, I have a few friends who have kindly offered to help.
“But because they can only get a few items at a time it means a greater exposure risk to me and how do I pay them?
“I don’t have much cash and I’m certainly not giving anyone my credit card details.
“So basically I’m in the lurch, genuinely scared for my life while trying to sustain myself with ever more inventive ways of eating rice or pasta.”
Martin**, a disabled Methodist preacher, has been unable to secure an online delivery from Sainsbury’s, even though his wife has been registered with the government as one of those most at risk from the virus.
Before lockdown, they had been using the online service for three years and he has been a Sainsbury’s customer for 20 years.
One week, Martin tried the Sainsbury’s helpline more than 350 times without getting through.
They managed one home delivery – “by luck” – from Sainsbury’s, before he was also registered by the government as being in the highest risk category.
But this made no difference and they were unable to secure any more delivery slots. His wife has now managed to register with Tesco and they have a delivery booked for next week.
They have survived only through the help of their son.
Martin said: “Online deliveries are a lifeline for disabled people.
“There will be people who are vulnerable, but have other options – like us, to be honest – and there are disabled people who aren’t recognised and have no options.”
He added: “The system that’s been put in place has not been thought through.”
One DNS reader said on Facebook said he had not been included in the government’s register of those at most risk, even though he has asthma, cardiomyopathy and diabetes.
Since an accident five years ago, he has had deliveries from Asda but is no longer able to secure a slot, and so he has to queue for up to 45 minutes at his local store, which causes severe pain.
He uses two crutches and has no help, and he can only manage one bag at a time, and so has to visit the supermarket three times a week.
Another disabled shopper, David**, who lives near Peterborough, said the online supermarket Ocado had refused to allow him to book a delivery, even though he is registered as being in the highest risk group, because he had not had an Ocado delivery since May 2017.
He was told by Ocado’s customer service department: “We can confirm that you are on the government’s shield list but we have not been able to identify you on our database as a regular Ocado customer.
“Unfortunately, this means we are unable to offer you priority access to Ocado.com.
“We would love to be serving everyone but the level of demand we’re currently experiencing is several times our current capacity.
“This is a cross-industry initiative and we encourage you to get in touch with your regular supermarket for your current grocery needs.”
David said that what annoyed him most was Ocado’s repeated use of the excuse that it was “only obeying government orders”.
He added: “When questioned, they initially agreed to see if they could provide me with the government directions, then said they weren’t sure if they could, then they just ignored me.”
Ocado describes itself as “the world’s largest dedicated online supermarket”, with a 15 per cent share of the UK online grocery market.
David has managed to find slots with other supermarkets, but his wife told DNS that Ocado should be “doing its bit”.
She said: “They claim to deliver to 60 per cent of UK households so it seems highly unlikely that all their capacity is taken up with just ‘regular customers’ who are also on the shield list.”
Costco had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).
Asda declined to comment on the provision of reasonable adjustments in its stores.
But an Asda spokesperson said it was able to use some of the data provided by the government to “help those people who have been identified as highly vulnerable get what they need and are protected from COVID-19.
“We are also using our own volunteer card scheme to try and use the fantastic NHS volunteer system to get much-needed supplies to those who need them.
“We’re doing all we can – and would continue to urge customers who are able to visit shops to think of how they can support others in their community and if they can shop for them – allowing us to maximise our online capacity for those who need it most.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “The government has provided us with a list of people who are considered clinically vulnerable with no support network. We are prioritising these customers.
“We have doubled the number of online weekly slots in recent weeks to serve as many vulnerable customers as we possibly can at this difficult time.
“We’re also now actively working with government to see how we can increase our capacity against an expanded list of people who may not be on their clinically vulnerable list, but who may need our support.”
She said Tesco had so far offered priority slots to 230,000 people, and was also working with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
She said Tesco had added nearly 200 new vans and recruited another 2,500 drivers and more than 5,000 pickers to meet demand, and was working to increase capacity.
An Ocado spokesperson said: “We are working around the clock to deliver as much food to as many homes as possible.
“Demand continues to be unprecedented, several times our current capacity.
“Like all supermarkets, we have been sent a list from the government of extremely vulnerable people who need essential supplies and we are contacting our customers on the list to offer them priority access to Ocado.com.”
Sainsbury’s did not respond to a request to comment, but has previously said that it was “committed to serving the nation’s most vulnerable people”, had been the first supermarket to prioritise all its delivery slots for “elderly and vulnerable customers” and had “significantly increased” its home delivery service.
Sainsbury’s has also said that it allows personal assistants or carers to accompany “elderly or vulnerable customers” on their shopping trips.
*To request that your case is added to the legal action, complete and submit this form
**Not his real name
***Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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