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Are supermarkets turning a blind eye to customers with visual impairments?

Visualise Founder Daniel Williams challenges supermarkets to make reasonable adjustments for customers living with sight loss in this difficult time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely been a real eye-opener for me where website accessibility and food shopping are concerned. As I’m self-Isolating and with my cupboards becoming bare, I, like countless others, have turned to the web to do some online food shopping. This should be pretty straightforward I hear you say, just click and collect, or click and deliver…..but this could not be further from the truth.

As I trawl various supermarket websites, I become increasingly frustrated, anxious, angry and disillusioned with the lack of accessibility for those of us living with sight loss. I’m unable to book a delivery slot which is essential when you’re visually impaired, as social distancing in a supermarket is a challenge at the best of times. In addition, my screen reader is unable to read all the information and there’s a lack of colour contrast – with all these barriers I feel like screaming! 

Am I classed as vulnerable?  

Vulnerable Adult Definition

“A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness and who is or may be unable to take care of him/herself, or unable to protect him/herself against significant harm or serious exploitation.”

(Law Commission – Who Decides?: Making decisions on behalf of mentally incapacitated adults 1997)

Factors of a Vulnerable Adult:

• Is elderly and frail due to ill health, physical disability or cognitive impairment

• Has a learning disability

• Has a physical disability and / or a sensory impairment

• Has mental health needs including dementia or a personality disorder

• Has a long-term illness / condition

• Misuses substances or alcohol

• Is a carer, where the person meets the definition

• Is unable to demonstrate the capacity to make a decision and is in need of care and support.

Under these criteria I am classed as a vulnerable adult.

Shopping

Am I able to access the shops like the person next door? I don’t think so, just stop, pause and think a while…

• Specific shopping times for vulnerable people

• Transport to the supermarket – bus or taxi?

• Locating a trolley

• Have the trollies been sanitized?

• Assistance when I arrive?

• Following the two-metre rule?

• Identifying the two-metre markings on the floor

• Not enough staff to assist me?

• Locating what I need? 

• Handling tins and packaging to identify my purchase

• Queuing to pay for my shopping

• Assistance with packing

• Carrying my shopping home

• Transport to get me home.

• Touching, touching, touching all the time

When you break down my supermarket shop into bite size pieces, I realise how much assistance I really do need. A simple supermarket shop can be difficult enough when you are living with sight loss, let alone living with sight loss and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are now living in the 21st century and under the Equality Act 2010, companies have a duty to make their services accessible for all, so neglecting to provide a service to a disabled person that is provided to other persons is unlawful discrimination. The pandemic has highlighted, more strongly than ever, how many companies are in breach of the Equality Act as it also defines that service providers need to make an anticipatory adjustment. Therefore, they know people with disabilities will use their service and correct adjustments need to be put in place. 

Making Anticipatory adjustments – knowing your vulnerable customers

Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way in which services are delivered, providing extra equipment and/or the removal of physical barriers.

This is the ‘duty to make reasonable adjustments’. A duty is something someone must do, in this case because it is written in law.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments aims to make sure that if you are a disabled person, you can use an organisation’s services – as close as it is reasonably possible – to get to the standard usually offered to non-disabled people.

If an organisation provides goods, facilities or services, carries out public functions, or runs an association for the public or a section of it and finds there are barriers to disabled people in the way it does things, then it must consider making adjustments (in other words, changes). If those adjustments are reasonable for that organisation to make, then it must, by law, implement them.

The duty is ‘anticipatory’. This means an organisation cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use its services, but must think in advance (and on an ongoing basis) about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual, hearing or mobility impairment or a learning disability.

An organisation is not required to do more than it is reasonable and what is defined as reasonable depends, among other factors, on its size, the nature of the goods, facilities or services it provides, the public functions it carries out or the association it runs.

If you are a disabled person and can show there are barriers an organisation should have identified and reasonable adjustments could have been made, you can bring a claim against it in court. If you win your case, the organisation may be told to pay compensation and make the necessary changes.

On the basis of this, we already know that energy companies have made anticipatory adjustments, they know who their vulnerable customers are.

The Priority Services Register

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a free service provided by suppliers and network operators to customers in need. Here we explain the help available to you if you sign up. 

Who can sign up to the Priority Services Register?

You can receive the services available if you:

• are of pensionable age

• are disabled or chronically sick

• have a long-term medical condition

• have a hearing or visual impairment or additional communication needs

• are in a vulnerable situation.

Each energy supplier and network operator maintains its own register. 

Vulnerable situations

A wide range of circumstances could be deemed vulnerable situations when determining PSR eligibility. Examples include:

• customers with certain mental health conditions which impact on them understanding their bill

• customers who cannot top up their pre-payment meter due to injury

• temporary circumstances where a customer needs extra support for a limited amount of time. 

This link to the Ofgem website will give you full details: https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/consumers/household-gas-and-electricity-guide/extra-help-energy-services/priority-services-register-people-need

So, my question is, if the Energy Companies can do this, why can’t the supermarkets as they too should make an anticipatory adjustment and know who their vulnerable customers are?

Just to put everything into perspective, this situation also happens during the Christmas period when people are flocking to supermarkets. 

The RNIB is working with Guide Dogs, Thomas Pocklington Trust, Vision UK, and Visionary to raise the difficulties people who are blind or partially sighted people are experiencing to access food and basic necessities with the Secretary of State. 

For further information and to sign the petition please follow the link below https://www.rnib.org.uk/campaigning/campaigning-news/petition-rnib-and-sight-loss-sector-call-better-supermarket-access-during-pandemic

Stay safe,

Daniel