We asked ... Patrick Dohmen

Accessibility: "We need a shift in awareness in the retail sector"


Shopping with a disability is no easy feat: almost every store is not accessible. But what does accessibility in retail actually mean? REHACARE.com spoke with Patrick Dohmen of the EUKOBA Association about the idea behind the LernLaden (English: Learning Store) and the awareness and sensitization project for retailers, employees and apprentices.

Photo: Patrick Dohmen in the LernLaden with a younger woman; Copyright: WDR/EUKOBA

Patrick Dohmen in the LernLaden; © WDR/EUKOBA

Mr. Dohmen, how did you come up with the idea of the LernLaden?

Patrick Dohmen: Since 2006, the European Competence Center for Accessibility (Europäisches Kompetenzzentrum für Barrierefreiheit e.V., EUKOBA) has focused on sensitization and awareness raising and has developed a training program for this purpose. Within the scope of the EINKAUFEN2030 project, the BMAS (German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs) has tasked EUKOBA with addressing the subject of “accessible and inclusive shopping“. Next to the creation of guidelines, the assignment also includes the delivery of pragmatic solutions. Our approach also included the analysis of the curriculum framework for retail apprenticeships. Subject area 10 (German: Lernfeld 10) addresses dealing with special customer groups as the primary learning content. Upon a closer look, it’s quickly obvious that subjects such as accessibility and people with disabilities are not covered. This was the deciding factor for us to create something new in this area.

We know from our work that awareness can only be created if the stakeholders, in this case, retail employees, are being confronted with the problems people with disabilities and older adults face. Our SENSE program (sensitization through self-awareness) very effectively pursues this path. It inspired the idea to create a learning and sensitization store. It was then set up with the support of the district of Aachen and REWE West at the Vocational School of Economics and Business Administration Lothringer Straße in Aachen’s Beekstraße.

How accessible is the retail sector at the moment?

Dohmen: The retail sector is in the same boat as many other industry sectors: "A lot done. Still more to do!". Unfortunately, it also always depends on how the respondent defines accessibility. Usually, people only think in terms of wheelchair access. Yet this is far from comprehensive accessibility as we define it: namely, accessibility that accommodates small children all the way to old people and an implementation along a self-contained service and infrastructure supply chain. What does that mean? An accessible building alone is only a standalone solution. If access routes, public transportation or other buildings are not accessible, it really doesn’t help all that much. It is also not terribly productive if guidance systems for the blind begin or end at the entrance door. Having said that, this is not just the responsibility of the retail sector. That would be wrong to assume. For one thing, there is no obligation for the private sector to implement accessibility. What’s more, there is a lack of accessible products (think packaging) and finally also a lack of teamwork among the different stakeholders (for instance, regional municipalities, transportation services, businesses).

Accessibility is a cross-sectoral issue and a generational task at the same time. The demographic trend in Germany requires immediate action and no hesitation as we currently see it. We need a shift in awareness in the retail sector and all other areas. The retail sector needs to adapt to the drastic changes in customer groups and structures in the coming years. The demands of products will change. While the retail sector is currently able to achieve increases in revenue of up to 12 percent thanks to accessibility, these changes will account for 50 percent and more of revenues in a few years. Those who don’t respond to this or don’t act accordingly will be among the losers. Brick-and-mortar retail always considers online retail as its competitive threat. We increasingly wonder why the subject of accessibility is barely or not at all addressed by local action programs.

Photo: Young woman in the LernLaden; Copyright: WDR/EUKOBA

Employees need to be able to detect invisible disabilities and impairments and provide the proper assistance. "Invisible" refers to hearing impairments, learning disabilities or visual impairments for example, but also age-related issues; © WDR/EUKOBA

Why is it, therefore, important to raise awareness among retailers and employees?

Dohmen: As I have already mentioned, we are facing a generational task. Added to this is that existing buildings often have structural barriers or monument protection doesn’t permit their removal. I know that some organizations will berate and criticize me for saying this, but we need pragmatic solutions in Germany. Always demanding 150 percent is not productive; sometimes 90 percent is more. The Americans and Brits are impressive role models of this. It primarily involves a well-trained and sensitized workforce. We have to overcome inhibitions and reservations. Employees need to be able to detect invisible disabilities and impairments and provide the proper assistance. Invisible refers to hearing impairments, learning disabilities or visual impairments for example, but also age-related issues. Quite often, staff lacks the experience or is simply afraid.

At first glance, our Learning Store seems inconspicuous and normal. Incidentally, it was deliberately set up in an inaccessible building. Based on typical and common shopping scenarios, we turn participants into customers with impairments. What is it like to shop as a blind customer? What issues do older customers suffering from shakes and tremors experience when they reach for the shelf or want to pay? How does cataracts impact how you see products for instance? Having said that, we also address conditions such as paralysis, osteoarthritis, tinnitus, autism, obesity or back pain in our store. Since the store’s opening, approximately 1,000 students have participated in our awareness training. After the end of the project, the store will remain open in Aachen and also be accessible for other schools. The training content is open-ended! We continuously develop new simulation scenarios and learning modules.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Dohmen: Unfortunately, the public often confuses the concept of inclusion in a similar way it confuses accessibility. If you ask people about it, you often hear, "Oh, isn’t that when children with disabilities study in the same classroom with children without disabilities". But that is actually integration. Inclusion to us means "a society for all" – regardless of age, gender, religion, education, language or nationality. This is yet another example of why this is a generational task. All in all, there is still a lot we all must do and learn to understand.

This interview was conducted by Leonie Höpfner and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.