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Belgian initiative helps retailers welcome disabled and neurodivergent consumers warmly

By Caitlyn Terra

16 Jan 2023

Retail |INTERVIEW

Belgian retailer Zeb made an extra commitment to accessibility in 2021 and is considered an example. With the 'Zeb for everyone' action plan, it aims to improve the shopping experience for all. Image via Zeb.

Anyone thinking of accessibility in retail may well think of physical accessibility. For example, making a small ramp instead of stairs so that the premises are easily accessible for wheelchair users as well as people with walkers or prams. But a service for people with a visual, auditory or mental disability or neurodivergent people (such as people with ADHD, on the autism spectrum or those who are highly sensitive) might not be something people think of right away.

Belgium has recently had its own initiative focused around accessibility in retail. It is a partnership between the Belgian Federation for Commerce and Services Comeos, Inter and Cawab. Inter and Cawab are the Flemish and Walloon centres of expertise on accessibility in society. The initiative has been named 'The Warmest Entrance' and offers webinars, a digital guide with tips and case studies, among other things.

Things started to really take shape a few years ago, when Comeos conducted research on corporate social responsibility. The research revealed that accessibility in retail was an issue that was not getting enough attention. "The retail sector was not that concerned with accessibility," Nathalie De Greve, of Comeos and The Warmest Entrance, explained during a video call. To put accessibility in retail on the agenda, a task force was set up and subsequently the partners created an action plan. Funding for The Warmest Entrance was eventually obtained through a special surcharge charged on the sale of mouth caps. This surcharge was always going to be donated to charity and was eventually allocated to The Warmest Entrance.

The initiative's website has been live for just under a year and has already collected ample information. The participating parties feel they can now seek publicity and did so for the first time last month. The website is filled with several webinars and there is a very comprehensive digital guide with tips and tricks, as well as legislation on the subtopic, should there be any. For example, consider the legislation on adapted parking - it is there at the federal level, but also within Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. All the information on the website is free and will always be accessible to everyone.

The Warmest Entrance's digital guide where a visitor of the shop can find tips, examples and legislation. Screenshot of The Warmest Entrance website.

Accessibility in retail: This initiative helps to improve the shopping experience of people with a disability or neurodivergence

Those who want to can spend hours on The Warmest Entrance platform and get started right away with a wide range of tips. For instance, there is information on level differences, toilets, shop design, lighting and acoustics, as well as management and management and communication and information. But the primary major goal of the initiative is to create awareness among the wider public. "In management, but also so that designers design for everyone and shop employees know how to help someone and provide a customer-friendly welcome," explains Kathleen Polders of Inter, the Flemish expertise centre for accessibility. The platform distinguishes between people with motor disabilities, visual impairments, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities and neurodivergent people. Polders says that often the fear of getting it wrong deters entrepreneurs, but also sales staff, from taking action. With the right training and information, this fear can be eliminated.

Belgian retailer Zeb made an extra commitment to accessibility in 2021 and is considered an example. With its 'Zeb for everyone' action plan, it aims to improve the shopping experience for all. Image via Zeb.

The fact that making some small adjustments can improve accessibility is also good to know. For example, one must consider good lighting so that hearing-impaired people who rely on lip-reading can do so properly. Another example is the introduction of a 'low stimulus' hour (or, of course, a longer period of time) for people with attention disorders or hypersensitivity to stimuli. Sometimes it is also as simple as providing clothing hooks on two levels, so that wheelchair users can also easily access them. Polders points out that not every entrepreneur has the space to, for example, expand fitting rooms to accommodate wheelchair users or parents with prams, but then, for example, it can be offered that customers can try on items at home and also return them again. "This provision of information is also already important for customers."

In any case, it is important to also show as a retailer that you are taking steps and that people with disabilities know they can turn to the entrepreneur in question. "For example, that customers know that the store employees are trained in helping people with visual or hearing impairments, but also that the premises are easy to enter with a wheelchair." So the communication and information part goes both ways, Polders stresses. "It's important for the retailer so they know what steps they can take, but also for the customer so they know where they can go to shop." Ultimately, the aim is for all people, with or without disabilities, to feel welcome in retail and also to have the confidence that they can go there, feel welcome and be helped should they want to.

Making retail more accessible: This initiative gathers all the necessary information

Both De Greve and Polders indicate that The Warmest Entrance is a multi-year project, to say the least, and will continue to evolve. For example, the webinars now focus on a customer-friendly welcome in physical shops, but the accessibility of online shops is just as important. What many people may not yet know is that in 2025 a new European law will come into force that ties in with this issue. The European Accessibility Act will take effect on 28 June 2025 and will apply to e-commerce accessibility, among other things.

This year will be focused on the introduction of the Accessibility Award in Belgium, De Greve says. This award will be presented to a retailer that takes good steps and sets an example in this way. Not only will the award serve the purpose of recognition, but it will also be a moment when the theme of accessibility in retail is brought further to the fore.

Be that as it may, The Warmest Entrance sets a good example, both nationally and internationally, for how retail can be welcoming to all. An initiative to keep an eye on.

Belgian retailer Zeb made an extra commitment to accessibility in 2021 and is considered an example. With its 'Zeb for everyone' action plan, it aims to improve the shopping experience for all. Image via Zeb.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.BE and has been translated and edited into English by Veerle Versteeg.

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