It has been cited that there are more clothing lines available for dogs than there are clothes designed for disabled humans. As the world marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities, M&S group head of inclusion and diversity Cleo Thompson asks ’Haven’t we got our priorities wrong, somewhere?’

‘Disability matters – let’s stop ignoring it’ was the title of my recent speech at the Retail Week Be Inspired Diversity Futures conference.

These were provocative words aimed at ensuring the audience stopped and considered what was meant by the suggestion that we overlook the subject of disability.

As we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, it’s more important than ever to draw attention to some facts recently shared by campaigning group The Valuable 500 – namely, that only 10% of companies have a targeted plan to access the disability market and a mere 4% of businesses are focused on making offerings inclusive of disability.

Let me share a few more thought-provoking statistics, courtesy of The Valuable 500 and Scope, the disability equality charity:

  • 18% of the UK population has a limiting, long-term illness, impairment or disability – both visible and non-visible.
  • This adds up to around 14 million people – and includes 19% of working-age adults.
  • It also adds up to spending power of £274bn per year.
  • Only 17% of disabled people were born with a disability; 80% acquire their disability aged 18 to 64, with 2% of the working-age population becoming disabled each year.

As an industry, we’re not doing our best to promote disability inclusivity

Disability is often the overlooked component of many companies’ diversity strategies and, as the recently appointed government disability and access ambassador for the retail sector, I am determined to challenge that in our industry.

Retail is the UK’s largest private-sector employer and, as we saw so very recently, our shops are often considered to be “essential” and our employees are key workers.

Yet, with a lack of focus on disabilities – both visible and non-visible – we as an industry are not doing our best for everyone who lives, works and shops with a disability. 

Ready for some more statistics?

A recent survey reported that 78% of disabled people noted “extreme difficulty” in accessing shops and shopping centres, 75% had experienced “limited accessibility in stores” and two-thirds reported that a retailer’s physical accessibility determines if they will visit it or go somewhere else instead.

One in three believe there is disability prejudice and, seeing the lack of attention that this huge section of the population gets, it’s hard to argue with that point of view. 

Where M&S stands

M&S has been involved in the inclusion disability journey since 2011 when Remploy joined our Marks & Start employability programme.

Other highlights include the launch of our colleague group, The Buddy Network, in 2015, followed by accessible guides for all stores in 2017, an adaptive childrenswear range in 2018 and mandatory assistance-dog training for our customer assistants in 2020.

We have Disability Confident: Employer status, we are a partner on Retail Week’s Be Inspired programme, we are a signatory to The Valuable 500 pledge and we were one of the first retailers to adopt the use of the Hidden Disability Sunflower lanyards.

However, we know that we have much more to do and we are determined to be even more disability-inclusive at M&S, as well as helping to lead the way across the UK’s retail sector. 

Want to be involved? I ask all retailers to collaborate with me on creating a more inclusive and welcoming shopping experience for their disabled customers and their families and carers.

We also need businesses to work internally to do whatever they can to create more employment opportunities, as well as create an accessible and inclusive workplace experience for their current employees.

You can contact Cleo Thompson to be part of her Disability Matters working party, aimed at sharing good ideas and committing to provide support to the 14 million people in the UK who live, work and shop with a disability.