Equality body calls on retailers to do more for disabled customers during corona crisis

Published: 07 May 2020

The retail sector is being told to take swift action to ensure that disabled people are not left unable to shop for food and essentials during the coronavirus crisis.

In an open letter, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the British Retail Consortium (BRC) that it is dissatisfied with its response to our original letter, highlighting concerns that a large number of disabled people in the UK, who fall outside the government’s high risk groups, are facing additional barriers to essential shopping.

Read the British Retail Consortium's response (311KB, PDF)

We have outlined the BRC’s failure to acknowledge the legal obligations on retailers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. We have also revealed we are reviewing over 300 claims against major supermarkets, collated by Fry Law, for failure to consider the needs of disabled people and make adjustments to allow people to shop for essentials.

Claims include a wheelchair user who was refused support in reaching items placed on high shelves; and visually impaired customers who have been refused the support of a sighted guide.

Other common issues include inaccessible websites and long-queues which can cause problems for people with mobility issues and chronic pain conditions.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

“We have all been inspired and moved by the kindness displayed during the pandemic by friends and strangers. But disabled people have the right to live independently, and that includes shopping for food and essentials. Otherwise, too many people will fall through the gap. The extraordinary challenges facing the retail sector do not negate its legal duty to consider the needs of disabled people and make small, reasonable changes to accommodate everyone fairly.

“We look forward to hearing more from the BRC and will continue to consider how best to use our legal powers to address this pressing issue.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is Britain’s national equality body, which safeguards and enforces the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have been working hard to uphold the nation’s shared values of justice, freedom and compassion and is committed to championing the rights of the most disadvantaged in society during and after this time of national emergency.

Our open letter

Thank you for responding to my letter last week. I agree that we have seen uplifting acts of kindness from volunteers over the course of this pandemic and would like to reiterate my thanks for the contribution of the food retail sector, particularly frontline staff.

However, voluntary support does not negate the legal requirements on retailers. I am concerned that your response to my last letter fails to acknowledge the legal obligations on retailers to make adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act 2010 and the rights of disabled people to live independently.

Whilst we note from your response that “the primary aim for retailers was to help to ensure clinically shielded groups identified by Government could easily access food without added risks to their health”, the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 is much wider than the Government’s definition for shielded individuals. By only supporting shielded individuals, your members risk leaving many disabled people isolated and unable to shop for essentials.

We have been contacted by Fry Law, who have confirmed that they have 300 individual clients whose claims include grounds for action against all major supermarkets. All these claims have been submitted within less than a month which shows a systemic issue. As the regulator in this space, we are reviewing these claims and considering how best we can use our legal powers to address this issue as promptly as possible.

Claims raised with us all relate to the failure to make reasonable adjustments both in store and online. Issues are wide ranging and include websites which aren’t accessible, visually impaired people refused the support of sighted carers, wheelchair users refused support in accessing high shelves, people with hidden disabilities such as certain diets or autism unable to access items that they need due to policies limiting the number of items, people with mobility difficulties not being able to rest in long queues and many more.

Whilst we appreciate the challenges faced by the retail sector at this time, disabled people are facing particular hardship as a result of the pandemic and are entitled to be able to rely on their rights. These are reasonable adjustments which retailers are legally required to consider when changing policies. A significant concern is that disabled people are reporting that when they have tried to raise complaints about these issues, they have been unable to do so at all or have received no response, which leads us to conclude that no consideration was actually given to whether accommodation could be made.

Despite the assurance in your letter there is still more to do with regards to the group of shielded individuals too. Concerns have been expressed that your members are only allowing access to online shopping for existing customers and that there have been difficulties for shielded individuals in Wales accessing these lists.

It is essential that retailers respond with flexibility and understanding to meet the needs of disabled people at all times. I am keen to understand what actions you are taking to support your members and ensure that the needs of every customer are met and hope to have the opportunity to discuss these important issues with you and your team.

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca Hilsenrath

Chief Executive Officer, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102