THE BLOG
19/06/2015 17:52 BST | Updated 19/06/2016 06:59 BST

Every Time I Go Shopping, I Am Patronised Because I'm a Wheelchair User

I've been asked by the Extra Costs Commission to speak at an event today about an issue close to my heart - how businesses can get better at meeting the needs of disabled customers.

I will be speaking not only as a disabled consumer myself, but also as a business owner.

Four years ago, I set up a craft shop and training centre in Cambridgeshire, called Bee Crafty.

I had fallen in love with quilting over the previous few years, and like all avid crafters, I had travelled far and wide to craft shops to fuel my passion.

I found that as a disabled customer, this experience left a lot to be desired. Shops were never very accessible, with shop floors often full of stock and product displays, which made it hard to get around in my wheelchair and spend my money.

I approached a friend of mine, another avid crafter, with a business idea - I wanted to set up a fully accessible craft shop of my own.

Making my business fully accessible

The first, and probably most obvious, step was to make sure that the shop could be made fully accessible.

After looking at a raft of properties which didn't allow this, we found a great spot, with an incredibly supportive landlord (something of a rarity!). He worked with us to install an accessible toilet and a ramp at the entrance.

We also made sure that our shop layout worked for wheelchair users, by decluttering aisles.

In the retail world we have a saying - "Eyeline is buyline". This refers to the idea of placing your most profitable products where customers will see them.

Of course, when you are a wheelchair user, your eye line is in a very different place! We have worked hard to make sure that we target disabled consumers with our displays, as well as other customers.

2015-06-19-1434717195-1747456-BeeCraftyshopshot.JPG

Julie's shop in Cambridgeshire, Bee Crafty

The challenge of being a disabled consumer is not always just a physical one - it is also about the attitudes you face from shop staff.

Without fail, every single time I go shopping, I am patronised because I use a wheelchair.

A common scenario is when I come to pay in a shop... I unload my shopping at the till, and go to take my card out of my purse. Although the shop attendant has clearly seen this, they will then inevitably pass the card machine to my able bodied support worker. Who then hands the machine to me.

This has happened so many times, that I now usually just grin my teeth and bear it.

In my shop, I've made sure that our staff are one of our key selling points. They have a disabled boss, and a number are disabled themselves - both obviously disabled, and with hidden disabilities - so they have no awkwardness at all about serving disabled customers.

Value of the purple pound

While I do empathise with other small business owners, who have to count every penny and can be put off making adaptations, the fact is that disabled customers often shop with someone else - a family member, or support worker. This means that you actually have two wallets coming in through your door - so two people to sell to!

Our fully accessible shop is also a real sell to other consumer markets. Crafts has a very big "yummy mummy" following, and the large aisles and free parking really appeal to mums with prams.

We also have a lot of older customers, who may use walking sticks or crutches to get around. They come to our shop because they have space to move about.

Attitudes to disability

It still shocks me that businesses continue to ignore the huge value of disabled consumers and their families, when it just doesn't make business sense.

I think it must be because of society's attitude to disability.

Disability still isn't seen as normal - and is often perceived in a very negative way. The lack of disabled people on TV and in the media only reinforces this.

Last year, I was part of Scope's End the Awkward campaign, which highlighted the awkwardness that many people feel when talking to a disabled person. I think it's absolutely true - people feel so uncomfortable about disability that they ignore it. And businesses are run by people.

The Extra Costs Commission has spent the past year looking at how to bring down the costs of disability, and how to drive down the cost of goods and services.

We need to find ways to get companies to think about how attracting disabled customers can increase their bottom line. It's worked for me and my business.

The Extra Costs Commission is a year-long independent inquiry that has explored the extra costs faced by disabled people and their families. It publishes its final recommendations today.