Tuesday 13th November 2018 saw more than 700 UK retailers take part in ‘Purple Tuesday’. This new initiative encouraged retailers (both physical and online) to ensure their businesses are disabled-friendly. Participants were asked to make at least one long-term commitment to accessibility and show a brief video to their staff explaining five easy ways they could improve service for disabled customers, whilst also holding one high profile accessible shopping day.
Disabled people make a surprisingly large financial contribution to retail: the ‘Purple Pound’, as it’s known, is estimated at £249 billion to the UK economy. So it’s well worth shops and businesses ensuring that disabled customers are drawn to their establishments. But is this day of action really necessary? Do customers with disabilities feel excluded from their local high street or shopping centre? To find out, I reached out to the chronic pain community to ask about their shopping experiences. I’ve focused on shopping in physical outlets, as feedback suggests this is the main issue for people suffering chronic pain.
What’s it like shopping with a disability?
Sadly, the response was almost completely negative. In my own experience, I find every shop difficult to navigate in my wheelchair and it seems I’m not alone; pretty much everyone who uses a wheelchair, mobility scooter, crutches or any other mobility equipment reports difficulties getting around their local shops. Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of displays I’ve sent flying as I try to get around a store.
Other shoppers share tales of disabled changing rooms being “used as storerooms” or finding the changing room itself accessible, but the corridor leading down to it too narrow to accommodate a scooter. One story I’ve seen again and again and experienced regularly myself, is that shops don’t keep their own aisles clear, with many retailers (especially in the run-up to Christmas) piling more and more goods onto the aisles themselves. It means that disabled customers can sometimes get to the end of an aisle, but then find themselves completely trapped, unable to turn around or turn a corner. It’s highly embarrassing and difficult to deal with.
Embarrassment and lack of understanding
And it’s not just physical problems of navigating through a store. Lots of people complained about being stared at, or even worse, being ignored by shop assistants or other shoppers when they ask for help. One commenter wrote: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been left in tears. I’ve been hit with baskets and trolleys on purpose, ignored when I’ve politely asked people to make way, hit in the face by one child swinging a bag full of tins with no apology from said child or mother, had hair deliberately flicked into my eyes, and had people charge at me expecting me to move”. People with disabilities generally just want to feel as ‘normal’ as possible. I find it utterly mortifying when people stare at me and I try to live my life as much like I did before my CRPS as possible. I’ve been left in tears numerous times too, when people either don’t understand, don’t help or just stare at you and it’s a horrible sensation.
Disabled shoppers can also face a fundamental lack of understanding by both workers and consumers in shops. One person told me they had “been told I have no right to use a chair when I’ve stood on my good leg to reach a high shelf.” Another respondent shared that “Waitrose accused me of stealing after I needed my husband’s assistance. I have one hand and carry myself differently so I looked suspicious to them.” To add even more to the humiliation, she said “the manager pointed and asked what was wrong with my hand”. She’s never received any apology and hasn’t been able to face going back into the same shop since.
It’s clear that there’s a real problem here.
What is Purple Tuesday?
This is where the Purple Tuesday initiative comes in. Run by the disability organisation Purple, its stated aim is “to make customer-facing businesses more aware of these opportunities and challenges and inspire them to make changes to improve the disabled customer experience over the long term”. It’s undoubtedly a great goal and one that is sorely needed.
To do this, Purple Tuesday asked retailers (both online and physical) to make one long-term change to their business to improve accessibility, as well as celebrating the day itself with a range of activities from purple cakes and purple lighting to shop workers dressing in purple on the day itself.
What kind of changes did they make?
I don’t want to be overly negative, because I truly believe that anything that makes shopping more disabled-friendly is a good thing. And I can understand that the team behind Purple Tuesday wanted to make it easy for as many businesses to participate as possible. But, even bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that maybe some of these so-called longterm changes are all a bit, well, tokenistic and possibly things that these organisations should be doing anyway.
For example, the Purple Tuesday literature suggests that shops might provide “disability-focused customer service training to staff” or “conduct an accessibility audit” of your premises. Whilst these are both great, you can make an argument that they really fall under the ‘reasonable adjustments’ required by the 2010 Equality Act and thus should already be happening.
One large supermarket chain decided to try and make their premises better for people who might be overwhelmed by sensory input, so they are trialling turning off the muzak, escalators, displays and tannoy announcements to help people with autism, dementia or anyone who otherwise struggles with noise. Now clearly that’s a great thing to do. This could be an awesome commitment to people with hidden disabilities that really makes a difference to the millions of people with those conditions in the UK. Where and when is it happening because I’d love to check it out? Well, it’s for a trial period for one hour between 8am and 9am on a Tuesday in 8 stores across Kent or 3 in Manchester. That’s it. So as long as all 850,000 of the people suffering with dementia in the UK can get all their shopping done in one hour first thing on a Tuesday in Kent then we’re sorted and that problem is entirely solved! Sorry, I shouldn’t be sarcastic, but I think it’s easy to see why some people were less than impressed.
I also find some of Purple Tuesday’s ‘five easy ways to improve customer service for disabled people’ problematic. Several of these tips focus on nothing more than interacting with disabled customers just like you would with anyone else; introducing yourself, not being afraid to start a conversation, or even just asking them if they’d like some help. Surely we’re now in a day and age where we can reasonably expect anyone working in retail to be taught to do this as a matter of course? I mean, am I really expected to think I’ve received ‘great customer service’ just because a shop assistant has deigned to speak to me rather than talking about me in the third person to my husband (and believe me, I’ve lost track of the number of times this happens too).
Links with the Department of Work and Pensions
The other aspect of Purple Tuesday that led some disability organisations to encourage a full boycott of the day was the initiative’s close links with the DWP. One of the major partners of the initiative, intu, which owns and runs shopping centres across the country, refused to promise that it wouldn’t share CCTV footage of disabled customers with the DWP, creating a fear amongst benefit claimants that their very participation in this supposedly accessible shopping day could get their benefits stopped if they didn’t look quite ‘disabled enough’.
All in all…
I don’t want to be completely negative because Purple Tuesday is fundamentally a good idea. And there were some people who’ve have great shopping experiences. It’s not all bad. But the reality is that it is bad enough for many disabled people to give up on shopping at their local shops entirely, instead choosing to spend their money online. It’s what I do. Everything I buy, including my weekly shop, is bought online rather than in a physical premises. Of course the truth is that many websites also have accessibility issues, but for chronic pain sufferers this is often less of a consideration than physical obstacles.
If I do have to pop to the shops as I’ve forgotten something, my village is lucky enough to have two small supermarkets, but the disabled parking is constantly being used by people without blue badges and the aisles of the shops are so small I can’t safely get round in my wheelchair. It’s stressful and horrible. There’s literally nothing about the experience that would make me choose to go there instead of buying online. And from what I can see, that’s the experience of vast numbers of disabled people too. Purple Tuesday might be a great idea, but it’s a drop in the ocean of changes that are needed for disabled consumers to truly feel valued. Way too little and way too late.