‘But We Don’t Have Any Disabled Customers’

The classic retort from a business challenged on access issues is that it doesn’t have any disabled customers, so it doesn’t see why access should be a problem. Representatives may add that if disabled customers were to present themselves, the business would, of course, accommodate them. ‘All they need to do is ask,’ members of the public are assured, and the issue would be resolved. That these arguments are so often accepted as a legitimate response to access complaints is a telling illustration of how deeply ableism runs through society; naturally, businesses cannot expected to comply with the law and accommodate customers who ‘don’t exist.’

This argument ignores a pretty fundamental tenet of doing business, which is that customers aren’t drawn to businesses that do not provide the goods and services they need. When I need sheets, I do not go to the sock store; the sock store could argue it doesn’t have me as a customer, but that isn’t factually accurate. I’m choosing not to do business there because I need something the store doesn’t have. Likewise, I don’t go to Harvest Market for veterinary services, nor do I expect the feed store to start stocking cashmere sweaters. As a customer, I make decisions about where to shop in no small part on the basis of what kinds of items a store carries.

And what kind of environment is maintained inside. There’s a local business I can’t go into because the reek of scented candles, oils, and other products is so strong that my airways close just walking by their door when they have it open. I choose not to do business with them because it’s inaccessible; I can’t breathe when I go in. People with disabilities frequently choose not to enter stores they can’t enter, whether they have a ‘just one step’ doorway or aisles that are too narrow or other access issues.

It’s not that disabled customers don’t exist, but that the business environment is hostile to us, and so we have no reason to go in. And no, it’s not as simple as ‘just asking.’ For one thing, it may be difficult to ask, and for another, requests for accommodation are usually met with hostility, including from people who assure that ‘all they need to do is ask.’ A request to ramp a doorway, for instance, may be met with a counter explaining how expensive that would be and how it’s just not possible and ‘you’re the first person to have asked’ and ‘it would be more of an issue if we had disabled customers.’

Circular logic wins the day. The business claims it would surely take measures if it had disabled customers, but as long as it doesn’t take those measures, it won’t have disabled customers. People aren’t going to enter a business they can’t enter not just because of physical access issues, but because inaccessibility sends a clearly unwelcoming message. It’s obvious that your business is not wanted if a store can’t be bothered to make an environment where you can comfortably navigate and make purchases. The burden is not on the customer to make the space welcoming by asking people to provide access and, often, providing education about how to do it.

Rather, the burden shouldn’t be on the customer, but it often is. There’s a routine expectation that people with disabilities should have to ask for accommodation if they want it, that it won’t be naturally provided. That we should be forced to create welcoming spaces for ourselves by being the ones who do speak up, while at the same time we’re condemned as nuisances when we do. Requests for accommodation are often met with helpless shrugs and a statement about how, gosh, it would be great to do that but we don’t know how. An encouragement to hire an accessibility consultant, a person who is paid to provide that kind of information, is rarely well received. Instead, the person with disabilities is supposed to ask, provide education, and implement an accessibility plan, all for free, all to enter a business or interact with a website or conduct some basic activity.

Of course businesses are not going to have disabled customers when they don’t make it possible for people with disabilities to shop within their walls. And businesses must be well aware of this, just as the feed store knows it won’t attract customers who want to buy sweaters as long as it doesn’t sell them. Thus, there is a certain sinister implication behind this circular logic, a suggestion that businesses don’t want disabled customers, because if they did, they would be setting up accommodations to make that possible. Hiring accessibility consultants. Talking to people with disabilities about products and services they would like to see. Working hard to make their environment welcoming.

Promoting accessible environments requires cooperation from everyone, not just agitation from people with disabilities who want to be able to conduct basic business activities. Creating a welcoming business space doesn’t require much effort, but it does require a conscious awareness and a willingness to include disabled customers; not to tolerate us, not to accept us, but to actively include us as participants in social space and the business environments. Our money is just as good as everyone else’s, and like other consumers, we have the ability to pick and choose where we want to spend it. It can’t come as that much of a surprise that we don’t really feel driven to spend our money in businesses that clearly don’t want it, or us.