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Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching.

- 14 Aug 16

A few years ago I asked Marks & Spencers to provide a usable toilet for my son and millions of other people who can’t use their ‘disabled’ toilets, you see their disabled toilets aren’t actually suitable for all disabled people because many disabled people can’t stand up and require a hoist to lift them safely, and because they can’t stand they also require an adult sized changing table for them to be able to lay down to be cleaned and redressed, M&S only offer the floor! You can read more about the issues faced by the lack of suitable toilets here

Since my initial contact with M&S I have asked them numerous times to include a hoist and large changing table in my local store where there is more than enough space, I even wrote an open letter to them via the Selfish Mother website read that here …

They’ve always said no.

 This upset me so much that I went as far as to issue a formal complaint of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 a few months ago – read more about that here.

 I had a response from them a while back but I’ve been so angry and upset by their response it’s taken me until now to write this update.  I’d love to hear your views on it from a moral and legal standpoint, read the whole letter here.

Here are the main points from the letter and my thoughts:

M&S state that by providing the same facilities to all customers there can’t be a claim of discrimination as my son is not being treated less favourably than other customers.. I dispute that as you’ll see in a minute.

M&S acknowledge that their toilets may be difficult for some to use.. what they fail to acknowledge is that for many it is not simply difficult, it is impossible.

M&S state that they provide both ambulant disabled toilets and large disabled toilets, to accommodate the needs of as many of it’s customers as possible.  They clearly understand that disabled people require options and are offering two toileting options for them.  However, on page 3 they state;

‘Customers are at the heart of our business and we invest considerable time and resource to meet the needs of as many of our customers as we can. It is important that the customer journey be as comfortable and convenient as possible’

By providing one more toilet option they could accommodate ALL disabled customers and make their customer journey comfortable and convenient too.  That is the whole point of Changing Places & Space to Change toilets.

Page 2, paragraph 4

We are providing exactly the same toilet facilities for all our customers, irrespective of disability’ 

No they aren’t.  Marks & Spencer provide somewhere to meet the continence needs of a baby, but not an adult.  They provide somewhere a baby can lay safely and hygienically in privacy and have their nappy changed, they do not provide that for an adult.  Therefore they are NOT providing the same facilities for all customers irrespective of disability.

M&S state that

‘To provide Additional Changing Facilities in our stores would be unworkable…For example space restrictions and building constraints… extremely impracticable in view of required structural changes, impact on available space and access’  

Space may be understandable in some smaller stores, I haven’t visited them all but one of my local stores (Holmbush) has no lack of space. They offer 3 large disabled toilets and many baby changing rooms as well as a baby feeding room and standard ladies and gents toilets which also have ambulant disabled toilets.  By adapting one of the disabled toilets to accommodate a hoist and adult sized changing table that store could provide toileting/continence options for all customers.

Building constraints – in an existing space there are options that would require NO building works.. Hoists can be wall mounted or even pressure fitted, therefore removing the need for additional support being put in the ceiling for a hoist.  Plus there is always an option for a mobile hoist!  Changing tables are also able to be freestanding or wall mounted – just like a baby changing unit can be, and an adult sized changing table would be more than adequate for a baby to use as well.

I am realistic, I am not expecting M&S or any other retailer to build a brand new toilet area within their stores or lose valuable retail space, but I do think it is entirely reasonable to expect them to adapt the toilets that already exist where they are large enough and the Equality Act 2010 states that reasonable adjustments must be made unless they can prove it unreasonable.

But the part of their letter that makes me maddest of all is on page 3  paragraph 7…

‘Significant health and safety considerations and risks arise from the introduction of  Additional changing facilities.  

These considerations include the risk of harm to our employees and customers. particularly disabled customers and their carers.’

NO… just NO.

Disabled customers are being lifted manually in the toilets in M&S stores, that’s a HUGE risk both to the carer and the disabled person.  M&S staff have health & safety training and I’m sure regulations are in place for their staff when it comes to manual handling.  The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 “manual handling should be limited to those times when it cannot be avoided and only where the risk has been assessed and minimised”.  So why are M&S blind to the risks they are asking their customers to take in their stores?

Is it because they think we have a choice and could choose not to lift?  If that is the case they are sadly mistaken, there are no options other than manual handling unless a hoist is provided.

Disabled customers are lying on dirty toilet floors within M&S stores. That is a HUGE health risk as the average toilet has 77,000 germs & viruses on the floor and many of the people that are having to lay there have low immune systems and are at risk of infection already without this additional risk.

The risk comes from NOT providing these facilities.

How their staff could possibly be at risk from the facility is beyond me – please enlighten me about this one!

M&S note that very few other retailers provide additional changing facilities.. true but my complaint was to M&S specifically, it wasn’t about other retailers.

But regardless of that, many other retailers aren’t providing baby feeding rooms either and I’m pretty sure that the M&S business model isn’t based on only doing things that their competitors are doing.  The whole point of the Changing Places campaign is to get more facilities in ALL public buildings so it may well be the case that other retailers aren’t currently providing these but there always has to be a market leader and I was under the illusion that M&S saw themselves as that leader – I was wrong clearly.

They also note that most facilities are based in public services, sport centres and shopping malls – true but our local M&S isn’t close to any of those places!  In fact the closest suitable toilet to their Holmbush store is 11 miles away!  And as shocking as it may be, disabled people would like to have as much choice about where they shop (and where they pee) as non disabled people do! And I would question why any large business with considerable profits should be passing the buck and expect another business or public authority to provide something their customers are asking for?

So legally M&S feel they don’t have to provide a suitable toilet for my son or other disabled people… ok that’s fine.. so what about morally or ethically?

They don’t legally have to provide baby changing facilities… but they do.

They don’t legally have to provide baby feeding rooms… but they do.

They don’t have to provide mother & baby parking spaces… but they do.

They do all these things, and many more regardless of being legally required to. Why? Because they know that providing these facilities it will bring customers to their store, and without them they may choose to shop somewhere else.

They value these customers and do whatever they can to get their business, which is great.

So why don’t they value every customer and do whatever they can to get everyone’s business?

Why is someone else’s money more valued than mine?

Why was I more valued as a customer when my son was a baby than I am now he is 7?  Because remember the disabled customers I am talking about don’t travel alone..they have families, carers, friends. They bring other customers with them every time they enter a store so by not providing these facilities they are undervaluing my custom – they value the custom of a new Mum remember so why not a special needs Mum?

Why was my son provided with somewhere to have his toileting and continence needs met when he was 3 but not now he is 7?

Why would they be pleased to welcome some people into their cafe, and provide them facilities they need to spend more time and therefore more money there, but not welcome everyone?

We’ve all used a toilet in a store like M&S, we’ve all had to wait in a queue in those toilets so we know how essential & popular they are with customers, we know it’s what helps people decide between paying for their shopping and leaving or going into their cafe for some lunch.

Why are toilets not considered essential for everyone? After all we ALL need to pee!

This isn’t an issue that just affects me and William… over 1/2 million people would benefit from a hoist assisted toilet and it’s estimated that up to 5 million would benefit from the facilities a Changing Places or Space to Change facility provides.  Why is their custom not valued?

There are almost 12 million disabled people in the UK, they have wide ranging disabilities – providing a larger toilet with a grab rail is not sufficient to meet the needs of all of them and is actually ‘disabling’ many of them even further. People with no continence issues are being forced to wear a nappy/pad because they require a hoist to be lifted onto a toilet – how degrading is that!

M&S provide baby changing facilities so that babies don’t have to sit in their own mess for longer than necessary but they don’t care that older children and adults are having to do exactly that.

M&S provide a clean space for a baby to lay on to have their continence needs met, but they don’t care that older children and adults are having to lay on their toilet floors.

M&S provide babies with privacy and dignity, but that ends when you are too big to fit on their changing tables any longer.

But that’s ok, M&S are complying with their interpretation of the law.  They’re doing their bit by meeting the minimum standards so why would we expect any more of them?

Ill tell you why.. because there is NOTHING minimum standard about Marks & Spencers and they’ve built their brand on just that.  And remember… ‘this is not just a toilet.. this is a Marks and Spencer toilet’

The M&S Code of Ethics & Behaviours says “Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching.”  Well M&S, we are watching and we are telling you that refusing to make adaptations for disabled customers is not the right thing to do and completely destroys any integrity you claim to have.  Oh incidentally, the same document also says “If we can help others make a difference, why wouldn’t we do it?” Laughable really.

This is such a huge missed opportunity for a company that I considered to be forward thinking, customer caring and ‘Best of British’.

The disabled population have a collective spending power of £80 billion a year, but I guess we will have to continue to spend our purple pound elsewhere if it’s not valued at Marks & Spencers.

I’d love to hear your views on this!

NB. People have asked why I am ‘targeting’ M&S and not other stores such as John Lewis etc.  The answer is simple, M&S is a store I visit a lot, I like their food and I like their cafe.  My son likes their stores as they are bright and spacious. We don’t have a John Lewis or anything else similar closeby and therefore I cannot claim they are discriminating against my son.  Other people however are already contacting other businesses about this issue.

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Mum On A Mission

Laura is Mum to William, the happiest boy you'll ever meet. William has quadraplegic cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Laura writes about life with a disabled child & the issues they face on her blog Mum on a mission www.mumoam.co.uk She is passionate about making a difference and is dedicated to campaigning for better accessibility for disabled people in the UK.

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