Special Report DDA: The case for unlimited access

A ban on discrimination against disabled people presents opportunities as well as challenges, writes Mike Fletcher.

Last October saw a big shake-up in consumer and employee rights when the final rights of access contained within the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) came into force.

The DDA states that if you're a service provider, you must make reasonable physical adjustments to your premises to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against. The term 'premises' includes exhibition stands, venues, mobile display vehicles and any event environment where a disabled person will wish to gain access.

The law also stipulates requirements for differing types of disability, including impaired mobility, visual impairment, hearing difficulties, speech impediments, learning disabilities and hidden impairments such as arthritis.

The Association of Exhibition Organisers' project division, which encompasses the Association of Exhibition Venues and the Association of Exhibition Contractors, is about to release details on how companies can meet their DDA responsibilities when it comes to organising and exhibiting at exhibitions.

Currently, it is focused on raising awareness that the Act is in force.

Service suppliers such as Event Marketing Solutions (EMS) lobby for disabled access as a standard feature within the design of mobile units and roadshows.

EMS managing director Keith Austen says: "Disabled customers have a combined spending power of over £80bn, so ensuring mobile exhibition units are more accessible to them can only benefit someone's business."

EMS advises several ways in which companies looking to use mobile units can ensure that they stay within the guidelines of the DDA. These include lighting the unit with clear signs for visually impaired people, installing an induction loop for people with hearing problems, providing seating for someone with a mobility impairment or a condition such as ME and installing a ramp and a handrail for wheelchair users.

The duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' falls into three main areas: changing practices, policies and procedures; providing auxiliary aids and services; and overcoming physical features by removing or altering them.

"Simple measures - such as lowering a reception desk so that it is more accessible for people who use wheelchairs - can be translated across both mobile promotional units and venues plus exhibition stands. Using colour contrast to ensure entrances and exits are easier to use for visually impaired people is another relatively straightforward change that all employers should ensure," says Austen.

The employment provisions section of the DDA came into force in December 1996 and applies to companies with 15 or more employees. According to the AEO project division there are two main ways in which an employer might unlawfully discriminate against a disabled employee or job applicant.

Association of Exhibition Contractors project director John Sanders says: "By treating him or her less favourably without justification than other employees or job applicants because of his or her disability or by not making reasonable adjustments, employers are potentially discriminating against around 10 million disabled adults in the UK."

According to Sanders, the most relevant part of the DDA as far as event organisers are concerned is the section governing access to goods and services, which came into force in October 1999 and deals with anyone providing goods, facilities or services to the public. "This is the part that we think of when we talk about the DDA. Simply, can they book, get in and then buy stuff?"

If the example given in the official DDA guidance document is adhered to, then the answer is probably no. It states: "Despite providing qualified British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters for deaf delegates who use BSL, the conference organiser fails to ensure that those delegates have the option to be seated near and in full view of the interpreter (who are themselves in a well lit area). As a result, not all delegates are able to follow the interpretation. The auxiliary service provided has not been effective in making the event fully accessible to those deaf delegates."

Next month the AEO projects division, in partnership with Event magazine, will look at what companies can do to meet their DDA responsibilities.

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