Going shopping makes Mike Adams feel “very disabled”. He says: “I can go into a shop and be made to feel invisible. There’s an apprehension. Staff are unsure of engaging with me so they swerve the conversation altogether.”
Tough times on the high street mean the big retail chains are crying out for customers, yet Adams – the founder of Purple, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the spending power of the UK’s near 14 million disabled people – argues that shops are badly serving a £249bn market.
Adams was behind this week’s “Purple Tuesday”, which saw stores and shopping centres festooned in the signature colour of the disability rights movement.
Purple’s initial target was to get 50 companies to each make a new long-term commitment to improving the experience of disabled shoppers. But by the time the day itself came around, that figure had reached 700.
The event was designed to “demonstrate to retailers that there are things that can be done at no cost” and to “start some momentum for businesses to see disabled people as, first and foremost, customers,” says Adams.
Asda, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, as well as Hammerson and LandSec, the owners of shopping malls including the Bullring in Birmingham and Bluewater in Kent, were among the big names involved.
Hundreds of thousands of shop workers received training via a specially devised customer service video. Other new commitments included to host “quiet hours” in stores, add “not every disability is visible” signs and to run accessible facilities checks.
Nearly one in five people in the UK has a disability or impairment, and more than half of households have a connection to someone with a disability.
As part of Purple Tuesday the organisers asked firms to conduct accessibility audits in stores and on their websites, and to appoint internal “disability champions” to raise issues at a board level in big firms.
Adams, who is able to walk short distances but relies on a wheelchair, says physical access remains an issue for him. “I never go on the tube [in London] because not all the stations have lifts. Many stores have wheelchair access now, which is great, but it’s when you get inside the difficulties can start, with crowded layouts making it very difficult to get around without damaging anything.”