Carlos kebab café is being sued for £10,000Sam Harrison

A disabled undergraduate student is taking legal action against several businesses on Mill Road, after they ignored her requests to make their stores wheelchair accessible.

Esther Leighton, who studies at Homerton, was Academic Affairs Officer on the 2015-16 CUSU Disabled Student’s campaign, and has lived in Cambridge since 2008, uses a powered wheelchair. She found that many stores did not have sufficient access for disabled customers, and first began raising complaints with the stores in 2010. Last year, she wrote to 28 of them. Many responded positively by apologising and installing ramps, and offering complimentary goods. However, seven businesses did not reply to her letters. Another business responded unhelpfully.

Among the businesses being sued by Leighton for £1,500 each are Charisma hairdressing salon, Zi’s Piri Piri restaurant and Penguin dry cleaners. Leighton is also suing Carlos kebab café for £10,000, after the shopkeeper allegedly ran after her in the street, shouting abuse and pushing into her wheelchair. The business is therefore being sued for “harassment, victimisation and discrimination arising from disability” as well as failure to provide wheelchair access.

“Like many wheelchair users, I have spent years being denied access to shops, restaurants and cafes,” said Leighton. “I’ve been raising these concerns with businesses on Mill Road for years.”

“The most important thing to me is an apology, not getting money. The point is to be able to access the shops. Thanks to the changes made by those businesses that responded positively, I’m delighted to say that I’m now able to get into the majority of the shops on the town side of the bridge, on Mill Road.”

Leighton has claimed that the adjustments necessary to make a shop wheelchair accessible are relatively cheap – sometimes they can cost as little as £20, and they are always under £100.

“I am open to mediation and negotiation, but I have now begun legal action against those shop owners who have ignored multiple letters. It’s baffling that they would apparently rather be sued than buy a ramp, which would be much cheaper for them.

“I’ve been encouraged and comforted by the support I’ve received from other disabled people who are fed up that the Equality Act is being ignored. It’s rightly illegal to ban other groups from shops. They shouldn’t be able to say ‘no powerchair users’ either.”

In response to news of the court proceedings, Mill Road Traders’ Association issued a statement in which they said: “Mill Road Traders’ Association are aware of Ms Leighton’s actions against some of the shopkeepers, however she has not been in touch with us directly. Mill Road Traders’ Association is working with our members in regards to Ms Leighton’s actions.”

The statement describes the potential economic difficulties that businesses on Mill Road may be experiencing at this time. “Mill Road is in a conservation area of Cambridge and is one of the few streets that is still full of independent stores. It is in a multicultural diverse area known for our open and friendly customer service. These shops are run by dedicated customer orientated shop owners, who are already under pressure during this difficult economic time.”

The Mill Road Traders’ Association were adamant that shops are trying to improve their services for disabled people: “Mill Road shopkeepers have many wheelchair users using our services on a daily basis, and we are constantly improving our services through our customer feedback.”

Under the Equality Act 2010 service providers have a “duty to make reasonable adjustments”. “The duty to make reasonable adjustments requires service providers to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access services. This goes beyond simply avoiding discrimination. It requires service providers to anticipate the needs of potential disabled customers for reasonable adjustments.

“The purpose of the duty to make reasonable adjustments is to provide access to a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard normally offered to the public at large.”

While local authorities can advise, and Cambridge City Council has an Access Officer, they have no enforcement role and cannot require businesses to make reasonable adjustments. This can only be done by individual people who have been discriminated against