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Promoting accessibility and inclusion for all

The benefits for businesses that cater to customers with disabilities are numerous. RHONDA GALLAGHER explores the simple processes retailers can initiate to address the different needs of all shoppers.

It is reported that more than four million people in Australia live with a disability and, collectively, they have more than $50 million to spend each year so it makes good business sense to ensure your store is accessible and inclusive.

Disappointingly, one in three customers with a disability have walked away from using a business’s goods or services in the last 12 months when they felt the business wasn’t interested in accommodating their needs or didn’t value and respect them.

Crucially, this type of customer is also twice as likely as others to discourage friends, family and carers from using a particular business. They’re also twice as likely to recommend businesses that do value them.

Members of staff can often feel awkward or at a loss as to how to approach and interact with these customers. For example, they may not know that it is polite to make eye contact with and speak to a deaf customer directly, rather than to their sign-language interpreter.

This can result in customers becoming frustrated or feeling disrespected, resulting in the sale being lost and the chances of repeat business disappearing.

But creating a retail environment that serves customers with a disability is more than just a tool for increasing revenue; it’s an important part of driving change in the wider community by encouraging business owners and managers to think and act with purpose.

Some of you will know me from my many years in the jewellery industry. Some of you will even be aware I am now basically deaf, while others will be surprised to learn of it. Those that were (blessedly) a part of my cochlear implant journey will have even phoned me on occasion to be greeted with, “Hang on while I put my ears on.”

Was I born this way? No.

Am I a different person? No.

Do I do some things differently now? Yes.

If you or a loved one woke up with a disability tomorrow, you, or they, would face a life filled with extra challenges. Would your business and its culture be one of those challenges?

One in four people – that’s customers, colleagues and staff – have a disability and we need them to notice and talk about our businesses for the right reasons. ‘Accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’ are more than buzzwords; they are terms that represent awareness and attitude and when these two are in place, we are getting it right.

Disability defined

Understanding disability is key to overcoming some of the fear and uncertainty when dealing with this customer group.

Disability can originate in different ways; it can be congenital (from birth) or it may be caused by illness, accident, or age. There are many different types of disability – physical, cognitive, intellectual, sensory, visual and auditory. Some people have more than one.

Disability can take many different forms; it may affect the way a person moves or communicates, the way they think, how they speak, hear or see. Disability may be visible or it may be hidden. It also may be permanent or temporary.

"‘Accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’ are more than buzzwords; they are terms that represent awareness and attitude and when these two are in place, we are getting it right"

Nothing we do, no assistive technology or intervention, will ever take away all the obstacles that living with a disability presents; however, there are some very simple things we can do that make a difference:

Relax – many people worry about saying and doing the wrong thing and this leads to uneasiness or even avoidance of the disabled person. The result is that the customer feels excluded.

Treat each person as an individual – show disabled customers the same respect and courtesy as you do everyone else. It’s also okay to use words like walking, running, seeing, looking or hearing in context. If you feel you’ve embarrassed them, simply apologise; if their overall feeling is one of respect, they will see the lighter side.

Don’t assume – ask if you’re unsure about something. Speak directly to the customer even if they have an interpreter or carer with them. By the same token, give change and receipts to the customer and not to their companion/carer.

Be considerate – it may take some customers extra time to do or say certain things. Don’t rush the customer and don’t finish their sentences for them. Always be prepared to interact with assistive technologies and try to avoid asking personal questions about their disability unless they mention it.

Considering mobility issues

When it comes to serving customers with restricted mobility, there are a few simple points of which to be mindful.

Firstly, place goods within reach. Ideally, you would serve these customers at a desk rather than a high counter. Use a tray when offering items to people with restricted mobility, which enables them to take and handle the item in the easiest way for them. This is good practice anyway as it guards against damage if an item is dropped.

Offer customers a seat if it’s needed and be mindful of boxes, displays and other obstacles that may obstruct the customer’s path within the shop.

Serving the vision-impaired

If a customer with a vision-based disability wants you to guide them, offer your elbow and walk slightly in front of them, highlighting the layout as you go. Let them feel and touch the pieces, and describe each one to them, including the colour. Jewellery that is tactile is often more interesting for these customers.

Serving a vision-impaired customer is also a great opportunity to take advantage of technology. Most smart phones and tablets come equipped with assistive technology that will read Word and PDF documents aloud. Receipts, quotes and product details can be provided in this way.

Finally, remember that they can’t see you pointing at items and, perhaps more importantly, never walk away without telling them you’re leaving!

Helping the hearing-impaired

The first thing to note, when assisting a deaf or hearing-impaired customer, is peripheral sound. Ensure all background noise, such as music or sounds from the workshop, is turned down or off.

Don’t stand in front of a window or bright light as this creates a shadow and makes it hard for them to lip read. Similarly, look directly at them and don’t cover your mouth, chew gum or turn away when you talk.

Speak clearly, at a normal speed and with good volume but avoid shouting.

If they are using a sign-language interpreter, focus on and talk to the customer, not the interpreter. Be prepared to use another way of communicating – again they may use assistive technology.

When calling to follow up on an order, you can use the National Relay Service (NRS); it enables you to make calls to people who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impediment.

Inclusive design

Even if you can’t make your premises physically accessible to everyone, there are many simple and cost-effective alterations that can make your store inclusive and appealing to all:

  • If you have a step outside your retail space, look into the portable and collapsible ramp options that are available on the market. They will make your store appealing to wheelchair users and mobility-restricted customers.
  • Think about your doorway. If you have a controlled entrance to your jewellery store, is the button at a suitable height for people using wheelchairs?
  • Keep entrances free of clutter and ensure shop layouts enable a clear pathway.
  • Have a low counter area with space underneath for a wheelchair.
  • EFTPOS machines should be cordless with tactile buttons.
  • A portable or accessible mirror can come in handy.
  • Ensure the workshop can be closed off to minimise background noise.
  • Have an open dialogue with your staff. You will be surprised how many stories come out, both positive and negative, about their experiences with disabled customers. Find out what has been done right and expand on those practices. Use the bad examples to improve service.
  • One jewellery company in Australia ran a disability-awareness presentation at its national conference and has now included this as part of its staff-induction program. This should be the industry norm, rather than exceptional. Forced into disability awareness, my own team in Melbourne rose to the challenge – not just with me but also with all of our customers. We benefited from an extra level of satisfaction and rapport with the customers who really appreciated the effort.

There will be times when things go wrong, when you are unsure of what to do and what to say. There is no one tool to cover each situation; however, there is one with which we are all equipped: it’s our attitude and we need to use it wisely.

The right attitude says, “You are welcome”, no matter what.

Rhonda Gallagher

Rhonda Gallagher has spent 20 years in the jewellery industry in both Australia and New Zealand. She is passionate about disability awareness and holds Diplomas in Gemmology and Community Services, as well as a Certificate in Diamond Grading.


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