The needs of the UK’s 12 million disabled people have been high on the news agenda in recent weeks, following the Government’s botched budget. Chancellor George Osborne’s u-turn over his reform of disability benefits has provoked a debate about how society treats its most vulnerable people. Brands, many of which have a poor reputation for meeting the needs of disabled people, should pay close attention to the challenging issues raised over the past month.
Marketing Week’s diversity survey, published last year, revealed a lack of representation for disabled people within marketing departments. Half of the marketers surveyed (51%) said they did not work alongside anyone with a disability, while only 22% of consumers said they felt people with disabilities are well-represented in British marketing and advertising.
Separate research by the charity Scope claims businesses are missing out on a share of £420m every week by failing to offer appropriate services to the disabled.
However, there are signs that some brands are beginning to take a more proactive approach to disability. In February, ticketing agent The Ticket Factory revamped its booking system to allow disabled people to purchase tickets online for two of its most popular venues, the Barclaycard Arena and Genting Arena.
Previously, disabled customers were required to phone a separate booking line to explain their requirements to an operator. The Ticket Factory says this was a source of “constant complaint” among disabled customers.
The change involved integrating its online booking system with the Access Card, a widely used proof of disability card that holds information about the cardholder’s special requirements. This could include their right to free companion tickets or access to wheelchair bays. Allowing customers to enter an Access Card number during the booking process removes the need for disabled people to phone the company’s contact centre.
Stuart Cain, managing director at The Ticket Factory, says: “Why are agents and venues making disabled people feel inferior? Why should they have to call a contact centre and try to explain their situation to somebody on the phone, especially when those without disabilities can book online with ease?
“We have been going on about this for ages and it has taken until now to find the Access Card – the missing piece of the jigsaw. Regardless of who you are, buying a ticket should be fast and simple.”
In other cases, brands are taking action following pressure from the public. Earlier this year, Marks & Spencer launched a new clothing range for children with special needs, following a request from the family of a child.
Rita Kutt, grandmother of toddler Caleb Kutt from Ossett in West Yorkshire, contacted the customer services team at M&S to ask if the retailer could develop products tailored for children with disabilities, such as sleepsuits and bodysuits in a larger size to those normally sold by the chain and with poppers for easier fitting.
Caleb has dystonic quadriparesis cerebral palsy, a condition that means he is unable to sit, stand or walk and has little control of his head. In developing the specialist clothing line, M&S consulted Scope, Caleb’s family and other families with disabled children. This included sending samples of the garments to Caleb’s mother before they went on sale.
An M&S spokesperson told the Daily Mail: “As this was a response to a direct customer request, the range currently comprises a small number of products that will be available online only. As with all new ranges, we will closely monitor customer interest and listen carefully to customer feedback on how it should develop in the future.”
Lisa Quinlan-Rahman, interim director of external affairs at Scope, says a growing number of businesses are taking action in response to the Extra Costs Commission, an independent inquiry that last year found daily life costs more on average for disabled people. In response to the report, ride-sharing app Uber launched UberAssist in the UK, a service that allows disabled passengers to call specially trained drivers.
Social media is also helping to raise awareness about disability issues. Following their contact with M&S, Caleb’s family set up a Facebook page called M&S and Me: Special Needs Clothing for Children, which has more than 4,000 members. Quinlan-Rahman believes social media is encouraging more brands to engage directly with disabled customers.
“[Social media] allows individual consumers to have a direct conversation with brands,” she says. “Nike developed an easy grip trainer in response to an open letter from a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and Lego introduced disabled characters after they were contacted by Toy Like Me – a Facebook campaign run by a disabled mum, who realised that there weren’t enough toys representing disabled people and children.”
Certain brands are also beginning to make progress in developing a more diverse and representative workforce. Scope is in talks with broadcasters and production companies to find ways of getting more disabled people both in front of and behind the camera. Meanwhile, companies such as Virgin Trains work with Inclusive Employers, a membership of 40 organisations that provides advice and “creative engaging initiatives to build inclusive cultures”.
One of Virgin’s commitments when it won the franchise to run the UK East Coast line in 2014 was to improve services for disabled customers. It has sought to do this in a variety of ways, including setting up customer information offices at stations that provide weather-proof waiting facilities for customers requiring assistance with boarding a train or navigating a station. In addition, Virgin worked with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to install tactile maps at stations to help people with visual impairments to find their way around.
Danny Gonzalez, marketing director at Virgin Trains East Coast, says that disability access schemes are developed following feedback from disability user groups, customers and frontline staff. The company also looks at developments in other sectors and best practice examples from across the rail industry in an effort to build on existing improvements.
“Many customers experience difficulties when accessing trains or stations – [and perhaps] potential customers do not travel because they do not think they can,” he says. “Through removing these barriers, and promoting things such as our passenger assistance service, we are ultimately aiming to increase the number of customers who travel.”