The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires providers of goods and services to make such reasonable adjustments to premises to remove or alter a physical feature of a property which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to make use of a service. The Act also allows the provider to get around the problem of a physical feature by providing a reasonable alternative method of making the service available to disabled persons.
In many cases making a physical adjustment will be costly, or may have some other actual or perceived drawback for the provider. So, to what extent can the alternative method option be used? Does it include internet service provision, for example?
A recent English Appeal Court case has given some interesting guidance on this issue. In Allen v. Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, Mr Allen was a teenager with muscular dystrophy who used an electric wheelchair. He raised an action against Royal Bank of Scotland for failing to make reasonable adjustments to one of their branches in Sheffield, so preventing him from accessing the banking services and even the ATMs. The Bank had rejected the option of installing a wheelchair lift because to do so would have meant the loss of an interview room on the ground floor. The Bank in its defence claimed that it had made its services available by the reasonable alternatives of internet and telephone banking and the use of other branches in the city.
The Court at first instance found in favour of Mr Allen, awarding him £6,500 damages and ordering the bank to install a platform lift. The bank unsuccessfully appealed that decision. In its judgment the Appeal Court held, essentially, that the service in question was the provision of face-to-face banking facilities, not banking facilities in an abstract sense, and so found against the Bank for having failed to make reasonable physical adjustments.
Although each case must turn on its own facts, the Appeal Court held that the provision of banking facilities by internet or over the phone was not equivalent to face-to-face banking. A face-to-face alternative for banking services is an important element of the service offered at branches, and is therefore a banking service that should be available to disabled persons in the same way as for the able-bodied.
Read that last sentence again, but replace "banking services" with "retail service" or any other service usually provided face-to-face and you can see the potential influence of this decision. This judgment appears to have narrowed service providers' options but in favour of broadening the options for the disabled.