About a month ago a friend and I were wandering around south London, a little lost and very cold. We gratefully stumbled across a cosy looking pub, but as I skirted around it looking for an accessible entrance, my heart sank, there was no wheelchair access at all. Thankfully my friend knows how to help me, so after some faff opening the tiny doors and a complicated wheelie, we finally made it into the warm. We ordered a huge pot of tea and looked around for somewhere suitable to settle, but all of the tables were too low for me to sit at, or chairs too high to move from my wheelchair into. I started to get a little irritated as we struggled around the pub, making a racket, as we moved tables and chairs to get to where we could sit. Finally we made it and relaxed for an hour or so, enjoying the tea and the feeling returning to our frozen fingers.
As we were about to leave, I looked around for a toilet, fearing that given the lack of an accessible entrance, there probably wouldn't be one. My friend and I made a bet, he cockily laid down £10, believing that, "of course there's a loo; it's illegal not to have one isn't it?" I smiled knowingly, but secretly hoped he would be right. I called over the manager and asked, "Where is your disabled toilet, please?" She stared blankly at me, and then at my confused friend. "What?" She asked. "A loo for someone in a wheelchair?" I explained. "Um, sorry love, we don't have that here". She scuttled off and my friend looked at me a gasp. I have to say, despite predicting they wouldn't have one, I felt really angry. I had just returned from west Africa where access for wheelchairs was just non-existent, and I had felt certain that London was better, more developed, in that way, but yet again I was reminded that our laws really don't maintain our rights as disabled customers.
So, as a disgruntled consumer, what do I do? Who do I complain to? I'm not going to start suing people; I just want inaccessible businesses to be held accountable and understand that I have rights. I went to the only place I know that seems to get peoples attention. Twitter. "Would it be wrong to start refusing to pay for food or drinks in places that don't have disabled loo's? Am fed up.." I tweeted. The responses were brilliantly supportive and incredibly interesting; the ever-polemic journalist Frances Ryan chipped in, "Do you think that protest would get as much media attention as breastfeeding does?" Then Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson even weighed in, insightfully stating, "Wouldn't it be great if you could pay what the service was worth?" and even more thought provokingly, "If a woman was told to use the back entrance there would be uproar, but not for a disabled woman". A very valid, but nonetheless, depressing point.
For a long time now I have thought that one of the keys to improving our situation is to quantify our worth. Businesses know that discriminating against women breastfeeding for example, is a bad move, because they don't want to have a lot of angry women and their dutiful partners taking their money elsewhere. However, I think the general feeling is that disabled people as a majority don't have much money so really, unless you're a nice person, there is no real benefit in working improve how your goods and services attract us.
Last week, an independent panel of business experts revealed the interim results of a year-long investigation into how markets could be better at supplying goods and services to disabled people.
The investigation was prompted by concerns about the extra costs disabled people face. In a survey of over 2,500 disabled people and their families, the Commission found that 75% have left a shop or business because it failed to meet their needs; something I would have like to have done at the 'No Toilet Arms' Pub, Inaccessible Street, London.
In its new report, the Extra Costs Commission sets out a blueprint that, according to the Commission's chair, City businessman and fund management industry veteran, Robin Hindle Fisher, will give businesses a competitive advantage when they "value and serve the spending power of the disabled effectively." This is also referred to as the 'Purple Pound', and a recent estimate put the value of the 'purple pound' at £212billion every year.
The report makes the economic case for addressing the issues we face as disabled customers. It highlights the point that businesses that tap in to this market will have an edge. They can increase their profitability and win the loyalty of a significant customer group that values good services.
Robin Hindle Fisher, chair of the Extra Costs Commission said:
"The huge value of the 'purple pound' should make businesses sit up and take notice. Businesses that are not targeting disabled consumers could be missing out on billions of pounds, we need businesses to recognise the value of the purple pound, and to up their game. There are huge rewards waiting for those that do this and today's report sets out how there is an open door for businesses to capitalise on the purple pound."
The government is also pushing hard for businesses to capitalise on the value of the purple pound. The minister for disabled people announced the shortlist of its Accessible Britain Challenge initiative on Friday 20 February 2015, aimed at highlighting good practice from businesses and employers in meeting disabled people's needs.
I am one of the commissioners of this report, and am thrilled that finally I feel we can start to change attitudes to access by speaking a language that businesses will understand. This isn't an issue for the CSR departments; this is now something for the CFO to wake up to. Knowing what we now know about our estimated spending power, I feel we are better armed in the fight towards inclusion.
I'm reminded of that incredibly satisfying scene in Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts returns to a snooty shop, holds up her large amount of shopping and says to the judgemental shop assistant who refused to serve her, "you work on commission right?" before she struts out saying, "big mistake... big... HUGE".
Like many disabled people, I just want access to the same places and products as everyone else, and I hope disabled people feel as encouraged as I do that this report may be the best way in which we can start to access them. So if you are reading this as a disabled person, the next time you feel discriminated against, my advice is to do a Julia Roberts and take your valuable purple pound elsewhere. Let that business know that it's their mistake, and it's a big one.. big... HUGE!