Accessibility: welcoming everyone

Adapting shops for sensory disabilities

18 January 2019

Shopping centres can be made more welcoming to those with invisible disabilities, benefiting retailers and communities, as Nick Hobbs demonstrates with several case studies

In November 2018, shopping centres and retail parks across the country took part in the inaugural ‘Purple Tuesday’. This was the UK’s first accessible shopping day, with a focus on the disabled consumer and removing the barriers that prevent and discourage the so-called ‘Purple Pound’ from being spent both online and in store. With 1 in 5 people in the UK having some form of disability – whether visible or not – and disabled consumers accounting for a potential market value of £249bn a year, it is easy to see why Purple Tuesday makes sense both from an ethical and a commercial standpoint.

Although the undoubted importance of making shopping centres accessible to those with disabilities may be gaining wider recognition thanks to initiatives such as Purple Tuesday and the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour, it is something that Workman Retail and Leisure has been working on for some time. Managing retail facilities with a focus on certain disabilities may be a relatively new idea in itself, but the notion of knowing your centre and the community it serves is part of good property management and should be nothing new to the sector.

The notion of knowing your centre and the community it serves is part of good property management and should be nothing new to the sector

One of Purple Tuesday’s key messages is that not every disability is visible, and this reflects a significant development in catering for the disabled customer in retail spaces. Among the first centres managed by Workman to start looking at how to better engage customers with non-physical impairments was Howgate Shopping Centre in Falkirk.

There were a number of reasons for this, but 2 stood out: 1st, members of both the on-site staff and Workman’s wider management team had been personally affected by family members and friends with dementia, autism and anxiety disorders, and were understandably keen to support others in the same position; 2nd, figures from Falkirk Council indicated that nearly 60 per cent of the area’s population is either under 24 or over 55, and with numbers only set to grow in coming decades, Howgate recognised that it made sense to focus on issues affecting significant sections of these 2 key demographics in its catchment area.

This is because younger sections of that catchment area may experience the effects and difficulties associated with autism or dyslexia more acutely than others, while older sections may be more susceptible to age-related diseases such as dementia. Using demographics in this way plays an important part in informing and shaping any strategy, and means that initiatives focusing on accessibility will often vary in nature and focus from centre to centre, town to town and region to region.

Again, this process of knowing your asset, knowing your community and providing an appropriate environment should not be anything new to an experienced shopping centre management team. What can be more challenging however, especially for those with no experience of or training in the needs of those with disabilities, is the formulation and implementation of the initiatives themselves. Studies of successful cases and the dissemination of these examples to the wider retail and leisure sector has therefore been essential.

One of the most successful initiatives that Howgate has run has been its Sensory Sundays. As the name would suggest, these focus on making the centre a more appealing venue for those members of the community, particularly children, with sensory processing disorders (SPDs) and autism, for whom the noise and normal hustle and bustle of a busy shopping centre can be intimidating and very unpleasant. Sensory Sundays see the shopping centre turn off all music from the communal areas and ask retailers to do the same, or at least reduce the volume from their own music systems. Inessential loudspeaker and PA announcements are banned and hand towels are provided in the toilets in an effort to reduce the noise from dryers.

In addition, Howgate staff have been trained by a local sensory centre to improve their service to those customers who rely on lip reading or guidance from a sighted person. Autism awareness training has been provided to staff by the National Autistic Society as well.

Sensory days have proved extremely successful outside Falkirk as well. At another Workman-managed site, the Mercury Shopping Centre in Romford, the plan was to hold a sensory awareness day once a month, but it proved so popular it is now held every Tuesday. At the Broadway in Bexleyheath, responses to a similar initiative have been very positive too.

Customer feedback, Broadway Shopping Centre, Bexleyheath


It was absolutely fantastic! It made such a difference to both [children]. Thomas wanted to say thank you so much, he loved it.


We even went to JD Sports and he had a really good look round. This is one of his favourite shops, but he hasn’t until now been able to go in there. He was so happy that the music was off and he could go back in and look around. He has already made a list of clothing that he wants from there!


It was a very peaceful atmosphere at the Broadway and has made a huge difference to us, and I would imagine that many others will benefit from it.

At all of the centres where we have implemented sensory days, we have found that improvements to the online accessibility of the centre are just as important as those made to the physical environment. Customers planning a visit to Newlands Shopping Centre in Kettering are able to download 2 visual guides, 1 aimed at children with an autism spectrum condition (ASC) and another for adults with similar conditions. In addition there is also a detailed guide available predominantly for parents and carers. These documents answer questions that those planning to visit Newlands might have, such as the following.

  • What can I expect when arriving at Newlands Shopping Centre?
  • How do I access the centre?
  • When are the busiest and quietest times of the week?
  • How can I get there? What private or public transport can I use?
  • How do I find the toilets?
  • How will I be supported? What do I look out for if I need help?
  • What else is there to do at the shopping centre?

The guides also provide useful information such as floor plans and simple guidance on what to do if things go wrong, including a list of simple statements to help describe any of the more likely scenarios that may occur.

In addition to the guides, management provides downloadable autism awareness cards for anyone who requires them. These can be printed off, filled in and then worn as badges, stating the person’s name and that they have an ASC. These guides are now being rolled out across all centres managed by Workman.

Top tips to make your centre more accessible

Do your research

Identify what the local demographic looks like, which local charities are particularly active and what other amenities already exist.

Speak to your local stakeholders

Parents, relatives and those living with non-visible disabilities will offer excellent first-hand experience and points for learning. Make sure a process is in place to record, monitor and act on their ideas and feedback.

Don’t silo yourself

Don't be afraid to look to other industries, assets and geographies for advice. A member of the Workman property management team visited Ibrox Stadium’s sensory room to learn more about what we could do in a retail environment for children with SPDs.

Start by focusing on the easy wins

Reducing or switching off lighting, turning the volume down on PA systems or changing signage to highlight that not all disabilities are visible are measures that cost very little or nothing to implement, but which can make a big difference.

Don’t forget about your online presence

Digital accessibility is a huge consideration and is often the first port of call for any prospective visitor to a centre, regardless of whether they have a disability. Use of easily understood icons as well as consideration of font, text size and colours all matter.

Include the tenant space

Communicating the benefits around sensory awareness days and other initiatives will help engage tenants. Be aware of any initiatives that they are running, too. Where vacant units exist, there may even be an opportunity to use these for quiet areas or sensory rooms.

Organisations such as Purple and events such as Purple Tuesday have done much to promote the business case for improving accessibility to retail centres for those with visible and non-visible disabilities. Beyond the immediate gains such as increased footfall and PR and social media reach, however, is the chance to have a positive influence on the lives of people in the communities that our centres and retail parks serve.

Those who may have found incredibly daunting or even impossible activities that many of us take for granted – such as going for a coffee or dropping into a shop on our way home from work – may suddenly find these options open to them. This is an opportunity, then, not just to improve the centres we manage but also to improve the lives of the people on which the survival of those same centres relies.

Nick Hobbs is sustainability and well-being manager at Workman

Further information