Improving disabled access ‘could bankrupt small firms’

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Last week the States unanimously approved the new law, which takes effect from September and will require firms to ensure that by 2020 disabled customers have sufficient access to their premises.

But concerns have been raised about the cost to businesses of altering their premises, as well as an increasing amount of red tape as more and more regulations are imposed on Jersey companies.

Calls have also been made for a new body to be set up to help advise firms as the new disability discrimination laws are applied over the next two years.

Gerald Voisin, the owner of Voisins department store, said that many firms could not afford costly upgrades to premises such as the installation of lifts and wheelchair access ramps.

‘I really fear for small businesses. For example, if you have to install a ramp for a wheelchair, there are requirements that it is not too steep,’ he said.

‘This could put you in a situation where you have to make it very long and then it becomes a trip hazard instead, so it’s difficult to stay within all these regulations. It would be easier in such cases to have a mobile ramp available.

‘Another thing is you might be asked to install a lift in your premises. That is going to be fine for big businesses which have more modern offices and always have lifts installed.

‘But a lot of smaller businesses are going to struggle with that. All these things could cost a lot of money and I think some people could be put out of business, if common sense is not applied.’

He added that the projected cost of converting the toilets in his department store to allow disabled access was £70,000.

Employment lawyer Lindsay Edwards-Thatcher, meanwhile, said that Jersey is introducing large amounts of regulation too quickly, which is placing too high a burden on small businesses.

‘This year is probably going to be the worst year ever for employers. You have GDPR [data protection regulations], age discrimination with regards to retirement changing on 1 September and disability discrimination,’ she said.

‘Most of the employers on this Island are small to medium-size businesses. They don’t have all the resources that larger employers do to be able to deal with all the red tape that is coming in so quickly.’

She added that the increasing levels of regulation could force small firms out of business, leading to job losses.

Jim Hopley, who acts a special adviser to the Chamber of Commerce on discrimination legislation, said that he would like the States to set up a panel to advise firms on the new disability discrimination laws.

‘I would like to see a body set up to advise businesses on the new legislation, like they had in Guernsey [where disability discrimination laws are already introduced], and help them to make sense of it,’ he said.

He added that businesses could be asked to take various actions because of the new law, ranging from installing a new lift – which he estimated could cost more than £200,000 – to even changing the colour-coding of menus.

‘If you take the example of restaurants, there was an example in Guernsey where they had menus printed on a brown paper bag and in black writing and they had to make it more clear,’ he said

‘If you put something like that in front of the 1,000 or so people in Jersey who have sight impairment that might create a problem.’

Mr Hopley said, however, that with 14,000 people registered as disabled in Jersey it makes overall commercial sense for firms to make it easier for them to access their businesses.

He added that he believes that the law will be applied with ‘common sense’ and factors such as the age of buildings and the size of firms occupying them would be taken into account.

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