Stores fail the test on disability

Businesses in the North-East face legal action if they continue failing to provide access for disabled people, an independent Government body has warned.

Businesses in the North-East face legal action if they continue failing to provide access for disabled people, an independent Government body has warned.

The Disability Rights Commission yesterday said too many firms are still blocking access to disabled customers with steps and poor designs.

The warning comes 10 years after legislation was announced to force companies to act, and more than a year after the Bill became a legal requirement.

Yesterday wheelchair-user Caroline Bowditch demonstrated the problems she faced trying to enter shops on her local high street in Hebburn.

The 34-year-old performance artist showed how more than half of shops in the town were out of bounds to her.

And her experience is not confined to Hebburn, but repeated in towns across the region. She said: "The bottom line is that this is not acceptable. Businesses have had years to prepare for this legislation, and some have made no effort at all.

"These businesses should be aware that they are also losing out on my money."

Ms Bowditch was unable to enter chain-store Boots and Ethel Austin, the town's Heron supermarket and independent butchers Dicksons.

None of the stores appeared to have an accessible doorbell to ring for attention, and some had no easy way for a disabled customer to alert members of staff.

Ms Bowditch said: "When you have chain stores like Boots, its difficult to understand why they cannot afford to make their shops accessible to the disabled."

She pointed out that one charity shop - The Gateway - had managed to install a wooden ramp on the same street.

Workers there said they were "shocked" other firms had not followed suit.

The Government's Disability Discrimination Act was announced in 1995. Firms were given nine years to prepare before the legislation was enforced in October 2004.

The act requires companies to make "reasonable adjustment" for access, including removing physical barriers, or providing an alternative access.

Ms Bowditch, who lives on Derby Crescent, Hebburn, with husband Tom Shakespeare, 39, a Newcastle University academic, believes 90% of firms could do better. She was born with osteo-genesis imperfecta, making her bones frail.

Problems while shopping or eating out include disabled toilets being used as storerooms, and being unable to pass narrowly-set tables and chairs.

The DRC is an independent body set up by the Government to give advice and information to disabled people, employers and service providers and also supports disabled people in taking legal action against businesses.

DRC chairman Bert Massie said: "The DRC will vigorously pursue offenders through the courts."

Fiona Robson, health manager at Boots, said the store is due to have a ramp and automatic door fitted.

Ethel Austin manager Jan Bushby said her store had already been measured for a refit.

A spokesman for Heron declined to comment, while Maureen Nesbitt, of Dicksons butchers, admitted access was a problem but staff were happy to go outside.

* To contact the Disability Rights Commission, visit www.drc-gb.org  or call (08457) 622633. must keep

Page 2: GNER criticised by wheelchair traveller

GNER criticised by wheelchair traveller

A businessman who is confined to a wheelchair last night hit out at train company GNER for its level of service to disabled people.

David Burdus claims he was forced to relieve himself into a soft drink can on a train bound for London Kings Cross because he could not get to a disabled toilet.

The access consultant from Corbridge, Northumberland, says he was put in a carriage without access to a disabled toilet despite telling the firm he was confined to a wheelchair when booking his first-class ticket.

The row is the latest in a series of complaints Mr Burdus has made over GNER trains. He had even offered his services to the company for free to train staff on how to manage the requirements of disabled people. But after what he described as an "act of indignity", as he travelled to London on Thursday, he is calling on the rail operators be more pro-active in how they communicate information to their customers.

Mr Burdus, 44, who worked on disabled access at The Sage Gateshead, and lives with fiance Janet, 50, said: "The experience took away my dignity, my self-esteem, my independence and completely disempowered me.

"It is disgraceful - I am a paying first-class customer yet feel that I am paying for first-class discrimination."

A GNER spokesman said: "GNER is committed to continually improving the facilities it provides for people with disabilities. Whenever a customer books a ticket with us, we do try to give information relevant to that customer's needs."

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