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Debenhams faces disability discrimination claim

High street store Debenhams will become the first retailer to be sued under the Disability Discrimination Act for failing to improve physical access to goods and services, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) revealed on Friday.01 Aug 2005

The case has nothing to do with web accessibility – an issue often covered by OUT-LAW. But it involves the same legislation that puts an obligation on website operators to make their sites accessible to disabled internet users.

Greg Jackson, a 43-year old wheelchair-user, is suing because he has been denied access to a section of the menswear department in the retailer's Derby store which can only be reached via a set of steps.

This is contrary to rules in the Act, in force since 1st October 2004, that place duties on shops and business that provide services to the public to alter, adapt or remove physical barriers that make it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to receive fair treatment.

The law, passed in 1995, gave businesses a nine-year breathing space to plan and prepare for changes that would benefit the UK's 10 million disabled people.

Mr Jackson is complaining that Debenhams, which has 123 stores in the UK and Ireland, and annual profits last year totalling £300.5 million, failed to make improvements to the menswear section in Derby despite several requests from Mr Jackson dating back to January 2004.

“It's unacceptable that Debenhams are refusing to make any adjustments for disabled people,” he said. “Improvements to access the menswear section in the Derby store would be relatively cheap and simple to make.”

Mr Jackson continued: “Instead, I'm in the embarrassing situation of having to ask for clothes to be brought down to me by a shop assistant which means it's impossible to browse properly and places pressure on me to buy. It also emphasises and draws attention to my impairment and so I feel like I'm being singled out because of my disability."

The DRC is supporting Jackson in his case. Bert Massie, Chairman of the DRC, commented:

"An independent report for the DRC shows that some 20 Debenhams stores pose similar access barriers to those found in Derby. This is unacceptable. Debenhams has had many years to make these changes yet unlike their competitors there is no centrally managed plan to make access improvements that would meet their legal duties. Instead, they appear satisfied in doling out a second class service to disabled customers."

He explained that while it might be acceptable for a corner shop with limited resources to offer to bring the goods out to Mr Jackson, Debenhams should be doing more.

“The relatively meagre cost to a big chain like Debenhams of installing a ramp makes this practice unreasonable,” he concluded.