As an avid campaigner for change for disabled people I am used to rejection.
Being told ‘no we can’t do that’ is something I have heard so many times it is like water off a duck's back now.
Whereas I used to get very upset and angry if a council or a business told me they couldn’t install a changing places toilet or make other changes I was asking for, I’ve almost resigned myself to the fact that 99% of the responses to my communications will be a simple no.
So much so that I make sure I double check before I tell anyone or get excited that something positive is going to change which will impact on my family’s life, and lives of other families with disabled children or adults.
That was exactly what I did a few months ago, when fashion store Next told me that the new store they were currently building in my local area would indeed have a changing places toilet.
The initial reply from Next was vague which led me to check the information because, when it comes to changing places toilets, I understand not many people know what they are or why they are needed, I had never heard of them before I had my son.
So, on this occasion, I made sure I checked, I asked specifically whether the store would have a hoist and an adult sized changing table in the toilets and was told YES!
So of course, I was ecstatic!
Finally, a big retailer, a national high street name had realised that they weren’t catering for all their customers and were going to do something about it in a brand-new store which they were still building.
I knew several high profile changing places campaigners who had contacted Next over the years and I was delighted that finally they were being listened to and their advice was being taken seriously and acted upon.
I told everyone I knew, people who have disabled children felt like they were finally being heard and noticed, and would be welcomed at Next.
I told the press and they wrote a story about it, they asked Next for confirmation and comment, and whilst the press office didn’t meet the deadline to confirm the information, the customer services team confirmed it for them (post publication the press team still didn’t confirm or deny the story).
Fast forward a couple of months and the new store opened much to the delight of locals in the area.
I was disappointed to be out of the country on the opening day as I really wanted to celebrate the new toilet (as sad as that sounds) but I roped in some friends who were going and promised to take photos for me.
Or at least if there was they couldn’t find it, and when they’d asked management they knew nothing about it either.
Surely a mistake? Surely a corporate giant such as Next wouldn’t make a mistake about something as important as this would they?
I went back over the messages to check I hadn’t read their messages incorrectly, or been vague in what I was expecting.
But there it was in black and white (or blue and grey) Next’s social media team confirming that YES there would be an adult sized changing table and a hoist provided in the toilets in the new Rustington store.
I felt like I'd been lied to.
They’d misled me to believe we were being heard, we were making changes and finally severely disabled people were being recognised and would be provided for and welcomed by high street retailers in the same way that non-disabled people are, by meeting our most basic needs.
I went straight back to Next to question them on this and, after they contacted the local store they sent me this reply…
Once again getting my hopes up and leading me to believe there was a changing places facility on the men's department.
So once again I asked a friend to visit and investigate this mysterious facility.
Guess what…it doesn’t exist!
After numerous tweets and messages I finally get the truth from Next, there is no facility. They blame miscommunication and claim they didn’t know what a Changing Places facility was.
Next have since sent me flowers and £100 gift voucher as a way of apology along with this letter but they are still missing the point.
I don’t want freebies, an apology for their misunderstanding doesn’t cut it.
They have built a brand-new building and whether they didn’t understand my messages or not the changing places campaign has been around for over 10 years, campaigners have been educating people at Next for years.
But even if they truly were ignorant to the changing places campaign, they have a duty to their customers to ensure they are complying with the Equality Act 2010 which requires reasonable adjustments for disabled people.
I ensured this legislation was referred to in my initial messages to them and explained their duty under the act.
Making this change during the initial build WAS a reasonable adjustment, it was requested before the building was built and as they’d agreed it was going to be provided, we didn’t feel it necessary to push it further at that time.
Now the building is complete and it’s too late, now if we make a request to make adjustments I have no doubt that Next will claim it is not a reasonable adjustment – that won’t stop me from trying though!
I want the other local people with disabilities to also feel they are welcome in this new store, to feel they can spend time there, spend their money there and stay for a coffee afterwards in the Costa Coffee shop safe in the knowledge they won’t be embarrassed by having an accident as there is no toilet they can use.
I want Next to realise that this is more than a PR gaff, it’s people’s lives they have let down by failing to see the importance of this facility.
By fobbing us off they are simply telling us, our children and disabled loved ones, that they aren’t valued by their company and that we should stay away.
The information given to the press by the customer services team may have been incorrect, but their press office has had weeks during which they could have contacting the media and provided the correct information, which could then have been reported BEFORE the store was finished.
It would have given us an opportunity to make sure the facility was provided and it would have managed our expectations if they’d said no so that on the opening day families of disabled children weren’t there wondering where the toilet was.
It is 2017, it is time that ALL large buildings which are open to the public and provide toilets for non-disabled people and people with minor or moderate disabilities, also provide toilet facilities for those people with severe disabilities who need a little bit more help.
This new Next store is a large building, has 11,580 square feet of floor space, a changing places toilet only needs 129 square feet (12m2) and a Space to Change Toilet requires even less, so it’s not as though they can claim lack of space is it!
I’m sure Next thought they could shut me up with some flowers and a gift card, but they were wrong, because this isn’t about freebies, it’s about human rights.
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