Struggling high street businesses need to “wake up” to the need to communicate with disabled people and their potential £200 billion spending power, according to the founder of an accessibility information website.
Dr Gregory Burke told Disability News Service that he still sees many of the same physical access barriers in high streets that he faced as a wheelchair-user when he launched DisabledGo 18 years ago, and that he believes disabled people’s quality of life has probably fallen during that time.
In the two decades since he launched the business, it has grown to the point where it has 60 employees and is used by more than 1.5 million people each year to plan a visit or trip by checking detailed accessibility information on venues such as cafes, hospitals and cinemas throughout the UK.
Burke (pictured) was speaking this week as DisabledGo launched a new website and mobile phone app and announced that it was changing its name to AccessAble*.
In a survey released to mark the launch, 99 per cent of the disabled people and carers questioned said it was important to know about accessibility before visiting somewhere new, while almost as many (98 per cent) said they would search for accessibility information in advance.
But only 14 per cent of people said they found the access information they were looking for and 80 per cent said they found the information they did track down to be inaccurate.
Burke says he was still shocked by how little attention businesses paid to providing good access information about their services.
He says: “What frustrates me the most is that businesses are resistant to communicating with a market worth £200 billion a year.
“With high streets struggling, you would think most businesses would want to tap into that.
“Businesses need to wake up. The disability market has always been here, but businesses need to wake up to it.”
Burke started DisabledGo in 2000 after spending several years in hospital, rehabilitation and respite after a severe case of encephalitis as a teenager.
He says it was only when he emerged after his rehabilitation that he realised that he was disabled. “Trying to access anywhere was fraught with difficulty and frustration.
“I’m a pretty confident guy but I found that my social ambit was shrinking, was getting smaller and smaller and I wasn’t going out anywhere where I hadn’t been before because I couldn’t trust what the access was like.
“If I did try somewhere new and it didn’t work out, which almost invariably it didn’t, that experience would eat in at me and eat at my confidence, and I was becoming more and more a hostage in my own home.”
It was these experiences that motivated him to start DisabledGo.
For the first couple of years, he travelled the country, listening to disabled people as part of a national consultation exercise, “asking why we were not more visible in society and in education and why we weren’t down the pub more.”
What he was told was that society was generally inaccessible, but that there were many places that were accessible to some disabled people, if those disabled people could only find out about them.
Burke says that listening to disabled people in this way has been at the core of DisabledGo’s success, with local steering groups set up whenever it produces an area guide “so local people can feed into what we’re doing all the time”.
Nine years ago, he decided DisabledGo had reached a position where it was “very strong, very robust”, with multi-year contracts with a number of large businesses and organisations and an annual turnover of £2 million, and so he decided “to become a barrister and see if I can help people in a different way”.
After just three years’ training, he was called to the bar and stepped down as chief executive of DisabledGo.
He is now head of employment and discrimination at Seven Bedford Row, a leading barristers’ chambers in London.
If he had one request of government, he says, it would be to set up an inspectorate to ensure businesses comply with the Equality Act.
He says: “The Equality Act is a fantastic piece of legislation – most disabled people don’t realise how powerful it is – but if you have less favourable treatment from a service or a venue you have to bring your own civil claim and that’s exhausting and expensive and time-consuming and can be frightening, although it shouldn’t be frightening at all.
“Most people are put off by it, so the government should recognise that just as we have a health and safety inspectorate, hygiene inspectorates and things like that, we should have an access inspectorate too.”
Burke believes that disabled people’s “quality of life index” would “show a downward trend” 18 years on from the launch of DisabledGo, following years of cuts to state support and media reporting of “benefit cheats”, which he believes has had “a hugely detrimental impact on how society views disabled people”.
He says: “To taint disabled people with the brush of a cheat or a scrounger is just plain wrong.”
The AccessAble survey found that less than two-fifths (37 per cent) of the 845 disabled people and carers questioned thought that public attitudes to disability and access had improved in the last five years.
But one thing that has changed disabled people’s lives for the better since 2000 is technology, he says, which had “always been a friend to disabled people”.
He hopes that AccessAble’s new app will help disabled people who find that acquiring an impairment “can often feel like the death of spontaneity”.
The website has always helped disabled people plan their journey before they left home, but the app will tell the user where the nearest accessible venues are when they are already out and about.
Burke, who still owns AccessAble, hopes his team will double its reach to three million users a year by 2020.
“We need to commit to changing a situation where disabled people and carers are being excluded from everyday life and recognise that access begins online,” he says.
“Everyone’s accessibility needs are different. Providing trusted accessibility information should be seen as an integral part of providing a great customer experience.”
*AccessAble is a DNS subscriber
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