Restaurateurs carry too much of the burden

Thursday 29th January 1998 00:00

Last week I wrote about how making provision for disabled access to my new restaurant would cost more than £4m in lost revenue over the 25-year term of my lease. When I tried to find out how many disabled people my lost revenue was going to benefit, I made a startling discovery - no one in the Government knows how many wheelchair-bound disabled people there are in the UK.

Radar, the Royal Association for the Disabled and Rehabilitated, guessed at 800,000 but it was candid enough to say that it wasn't sure, and that the figure probably included hundreds of thousands who were terminally ill, old, or had illnesses or disabilities that would prevent them from going to restaurants in any case.

numbers of disabled

None the wiser, I turned to five of my friends with restaurants that boast modern facilities for the disabled, and asked how many wheelchair customers they attracted in a year. Answers varied from none to about three dozen.

Let's go wild, then, and imagine my new restaurant serving one wheelchair-bound person each day for the term of my lease. The cost to me each time a disabled person showed up for a meal would be £450. Money well spent? I wonder.

In 1996, the then-Conservative government passed the Disability Discrimination Act, which makes it an offence for service providers to discriminate against customers on the grounds of disability.

Do you suppose that, before they passed the act, they did a cost-benefit analysis to determine the real costs to businesses that are expected to comply with the law? I couldn't possibly comment.

However, if government nevertheless maintains that it is worth the cost of assisting the wheelchair-disabled to lead as normal a life as possible, then why shouldn't taxpayers collectively shoulder the financial burden in the form of a rise in taxes of 1% or 2%, rather than over-burden individual enterprises that will never see a return on their investments, and perhaps even lead them to premature insolvency?

Moreover, what good is it to force restaurateurs to provide for the disabled before adapting public transport appropriately to allow them to make their way to these establishments in the first place?

The Government has put the cart before the horse. Lack of suitable public transport is probably the real reason why so few restaurants attract significant wheelchair custom.

Because, I suppose, they are the most obvious symbol of disability, officialdom seems preoccupied by those in wheelchairs, often to the exclusion of other disabled groups that also need attention.

Disability in law is defined as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial long-term effect on a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities normally. The numbers of the deaf, deaf-mute, blind or psychiatrically impaired (such as manic depressives or schizophrenics) probably far outnumber those in wheelchairs.

Fraction of the cost

Shouldn't we perhaps be asked to have all our menus in Braille, and keep on hand staff who know sign language? Crazy as it may at first seem, something like this might help a large number of the disabled to a better quality of life at a fraction of the cost of providing wheelchair access.

But, as many of us recognise, government is not really into helping people as much as it is into gesture politics that tend to make those in office look good.

Am I a fool to voice publicly what I know many of us in the service business think privately? I hope not. In the USA, the lobbying force of special interests groups, such as those for the disabled, is so powerful as to render intelligent public debate on any sensitive issue such as this totally taboo.

In fact, if I were publishing this article in the USA, I would guess that the day after publication my restaurants would have enough wheelchair pickets demonstrating outside to kill off my business.

I don't think that will happen here because I sense that we still allow people the freedom to say the unsayable and think the unthinkable in the interests of genuine public debate. I hope I'm right.


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