The actor Samantha Renke has slammed Zara for not educating its staff on how to assist disabled customers after she was unable to make payment at a till in its newly refurbished store in Stratford’s Westfield shopping centre.
Renke, a disabled rights campaigner from London, was visiting the store on Wednesday when she found the checkout desks and card machine in the returns section were too high for her to reach from her wheelchair.
Renke claims she asked a member of staff if they could help her by stretching the card machine and was told “no”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, she explained: “I had to pull it down a bit and I really struggled. Everyone could see my pin as there was no way of me covering it. I had to punch it in above my own head.
“She didn’t even offer to get the manager for me or anything, it was just like: ‘No, it doesn’t come down.’ The staff don’t seem to be clued up about disability.”
Renke says she then went to Pull & Bear, another store owned by the same fashion group, Intidex, and was again met with a high cash-desk and card machine that wasn’t moveable.
“It did really affect me. Nobody gave me any answer or solution, or even a bit of empathy. But they still took my money,” she says.
A Zara spokesperson told HuffPost UK its Westfield Stratford store is accessible, with desks designed for wheelchair access. However the separate refunds area doesn’t have an accessible till and Renke says she wasn’t properly redirected by a staff member.
“It doesn’t matter if they’ve got the equipment if the staff aren’t clued up or educated,” she says. “Attitudinal barriers are just as damaging as physical barriers and just because you’ve ticked some boxes, just because you feel like you’ve made reasonable adjustments, it doesn’t mean you’ve got it right.”
Pull & Bear at Stratford Westfield doesn’t have a wheelchair access till as it is an older store - however the brand’s newer stores do have this facility, an Intidex spokesperson confirmed.
A member of Zara’s customer service team has since apologised to Renke over the phone, and the spokesperson added that the staff member had not followed company policy to accommodate customer needs. Now, Renke wants to see things change across the board. As someone who lives and breathes fashion, she’s sick of being treated like an “afterthought”.
“Fashion for me as a child and a teenager was a real saving grace,” Renke recalls. “My sister said to me: ‘Maybe the reason people are staring at you is because of your great fashion taste, not because of your wheelchair.’ And that really helped me.”
Renke says she rarely shops on the high street any more because steps and a lack of accessible toilets are a common problem. Living with brittle bone disease, she often has to rely on other people to help her, so trips to shopping centres like Westfield can provide a huge sense of freedom.
“They’ve got disabled toilets, they’ve got a taxi rank outside, it’s all smooth – I go to these places as it’s a form of escapism,” she says. “It’s one of the very few places I can go on my own and be 100% independent and self-sufficient - and that’s important for my mental health, my wellbeing. Feeling like an equal member of society is an enormous thing for me.”
Renke says it’s vital for stores to provide better customer service, ensure staff are trained and aware of provisions for disabled customers, and make sure shops are accessible to all - not just wheelchair users, but people with other disabilities like visual and audial impairments or autism.
She credits stores such as Primark, Victoria’s Secret and New Look for leading the way, and hopes other brands will follow suit.
Addressing the stores that could do better, she says: “Get people like me in to educate you. Disabled people need to be at the forefront of planning, design, training, everything. You can’t hide away from not getting us involved, because we are the ones living that life.”
Samantha Renke starred in HuffPost UK’s docu-reality series ‘New Activists’.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on Friday 15 June to clarify that Renke asked a member of staff if they could help her by stretching the card machine.