Coronavirus: barriers to accessing food & essential items for disabled customers

28th April 2020

Coronavirus: barriers to accessing food & essential items for disabled customers prompts action against UK supermarkets and sends a warning to other retailers

It has been described as the biggest legal case ever taken in relation to consumer related disability discrimination in the provision of services.

It has been reported that more than 200 disabled people have signed up for a class action against UK supermarkets over allegations that they have discriminated against them during the coronavirus crisis. It is alleged that disabled people not on the Government's clinically vulnerable people list are facing barriers to access to food and essential items and require ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made.

The Law – Reasonable Adjustments

If a business provides goods, facilities or services to the public then it is subject to duties to disabled people under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”). Those duties aim to tackle inequality and ensure that services are accessible to all and not provided in any biased way.

The duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ is a cornerstone of the Act and requires service providers to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access services. This is to avoid disabled people being placed at a “substantial disadvantage”, compared to non-disabled people, when accessing services. For instance, the denial of choice, opportunity or rejection. Something more than minor or trivial which a reasonable person would complain about. The aim of making the reasonable adjustments is to avoid the disadvantage and that barrier to access.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments comprises a series of duties falling into three areas. The particular duty in issue here is the duty to change any provision, criterion or practice which places disabled people at a substantial disadvantage in using the service or trying to make use of its services. Put another way, it is about changing the way things are done and the particular way a service is provided. 

A business might have a practice which, quite unintentionally, places disabled people at a substantial disadvantage when seeking to make use of its services. The service provider must take reasonable steps to stop it having that effect. It might be reasonable to stop the practice completely, or to change it so that it no longer has that effect.

The Complaint

The Equality & Human Rights Commission is the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Act. The Commission has written to British Retail Consortium to highlight concerns about disabled people not on the Government's clinically vulnerable people list and their access to food and essential items.

A key issue raised was the availability of online deliveries and priority shopping slots for those outside the high-risk group. Those impacted include people with visual impairments, chronic pain conditions and some mental health conditions. The concern is that these groups rely heavily on online services, in-store assistance and support from family and friends, and risk being isolated and unable to shop for essentials.

Aside from changes to ensure websites and telephone helplines are accessible, the Commission also highlighted the need for changes to policies and practices on:

  • accompanied shopping - considering the needs of carers and those living in unsafe households, who may require flexibility around one-person shopping policies.
  • queuing policies - issues posed by long-queues could be addressed to accommodate the requirements of disabled customers who are unable to stand in line with seating and a system which allows those customers the same access as if they had queued.
  • changes to store layouts, which can present particular issues for autistic people

Key Points

It is reported that letters of claim have already been issued to some supermarkets.

As business plans for a socially distanced re-opening the threatened action against the supermarkets will provide food for thought for all non-essential retail businesses. With the crisis demanding such a significant shift in the proportion of sales to online, this and other developments mean retailers will continue to be forced both to adapt their services and prioritise their spending. Any touch point which disabled people have with a business must be accessible.

The way in which customers are able to interact with a business and access services is an essential consideration for any business, not only to comply with its legal obligations, but also to proactively make it easier for disabled people to learn about and buy products and services, thereby growing the  business and customer base.

For any further information contact Damian Hyndman.

Any touch point which disabled people have with a business must be accessible.

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