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Sasha Armstrong Senior Associate at Workman LLP.
Sasha Armstrong Senior Associate at Workman LLP, Credit: Workman LPP

Breaking Down Barriers for Customers with Disabilities

“Inclusivity is the only way to keep shopping centers at the hearts of our communities.”

By Sasha Armstrong

Inclusivity and accessibility are increasingly important for retailers, and with good reason. Shopping centers are often at the hearts of local communities and provide services beyond simple transactions. They serve as hubs and meeting points for communities. We have a duty to ensure that all members of the community can enjoy these places equally. Crucially, there is a need to introduce more measures nationwide to make shopping more accessible for people with disabilities, who represent a large part of society. One in five people in the UK have a form of disability, whether visible or non-visible.

Customers with disabilities account for a potential £249 billion a year. This staggering spend, called the “Purple Pound”, is often lost because so many malls fail to accommodate the needs of all visitors. At a time when the real estate sector is focused on how to help retail thrive, it has never been more vital to remove these barriers and ensure that retail spaces are accessible spaces for every part of the community.

We have already started to see some real progress in the industry. Last year, shopping centers and retail parks across the UK took part in “Purple Tuesday”, which marked the country’s first accessible shopping day. The overwhelmingly positive response to this campaign highlights that there is a real opportunity within the retail sector to not only improve shopping centers, but also the lives of the people on whom the survival of those malls depends, boosting footfall and commercial performance.

Knowing your center and the community is central to successful sustainable property management. In the role of property manager, we have spearheaded a number of initiatives across our retail portfolio. Together with retail investors Ellandi, we have recently received Autism Friendly accreditation from the National Autistic Society (NAS) for 11 centers. With regard to the Howgate center, the first shopping center in Scotland to be deemed autism friendly as a result of its sensory shopping experiences, our NAS initiative has even been recognized by the Scottish Parliament as being exemplary.

NAS figures show that there are approximately 700,000 people in the UK with autism, of whom nearly 80% feel socially isolated and 64% avoid going to shops. More worryingly, 28% have been asked to leave public places for reasons associated with their autism. We are working very hard to ensure such instances do not happen at our centers.

We have teamed up with NAS to encourage a more autism-friendly approach at shopping centers. Over the past year, more than 10,000 stores and businesses have signed up to Autism Hour. As a result of this campaign, initiatives such as “Sensory Sundays” have been so well received that we now run at least one per month across our malls, even one per week at some. “Sensory Sundays” is an initiative that reduces noise and light levels for a dedicated time each week, which helps those visitors for whom the usual noise of a busy shopping center can be overwhelming and unpleasant. To implement these measures successfully, we have heavily invested in staff training to ensure that employees are knowledgeable on a range of disabilities and can provide the right support for visitors with additional needs.

We are extremely proud that, in addition to “in-center” support, all of the 95 malls managed by Workman now offer visual “Sensory Shopping Guides” on their websites, providing additional guidance, thereby enabling customers with Sensory Processing Disorders and autism spectrum conditions to plan their visits and know what to expect.

There has certainly been some encouraging progress of late, but it’s important that all retailers work together to continue this much-needed momentum. We have shown how making a series of relatively simple changes can have a really big impact on opening up the shopping experience to a whole segment of society, who had previously been largely ignored. Inclusivity is the way to position shopping centers at the hearts of the communities they serve.