A summary of this report is also available in an Easy Read version.
A brief video of the main findings is also available.
- Disabled people faced many different barriers, including: physical access, restrictive building layouts, inaccessible online services, poor information provision and inflexible design of customer services that do not consider accessibility for a broad range of needs.
- The experiences of online services was mixed among disabled people; for some experiencing digital exclusion, access and engagement was limited, and for others, online services facilitated access and helped mitigate some of the physical design barriers within day-to-day life.
- Extensive preparation and developing workarounds were some of the ways in which disabled people navigated interacting with difficult-to-access services, with some having to rely on family and friends for support.
- Extra effort in developing workarounds came at a physical, financial and emotional cost to disabled people.
- Disabled people with invisible impairments could face a conflict between needing support but not wanting to have to identify themselves as disabled to access it, because of perceived external judgement and negative stereotypes regarding disability; this contributed to a sense of vulnerability which people felt negatively impacted their wellbeing.
- The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) caused negative experiences of isolation with limited access to support for some disabled people, which extended beyond coronavirus; however, others acknowledged the positive increase in online services, providing more opportunities to access, connect and communicate.
- Disabled people identified their priorities for future service provision, including: physical and online environments being appropriate for a wide range of impairments and offering flexibility in recognising and accommodating needs, involving disabled people in policy and service decisions that impact their lives, increasing awareness and empathy for people with a range of impairments, and providing meaningful, readily-available help for disabled people when accessing activities, goods and services.
In October 2021, research and recommendations from the Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF) highlighted the importance of ensuring that disabled people's lived experiences are fully reflected in UK data and evidence. Disabled people may face greater risk of exclusion and greater difficulties engaging with some research because of the way it is conducted. Data therefore may not adequately capture and reflect the range of issues faced by disabled people. The IDTF recommendations also emphasised the value of undertaking more qualitative research to enable a more comprehensive understanding of the needs of disabled people, including the existing barriers to access and engagement and how they may be overcome.
As part of early scoping work, we worked closely with the Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office, and spoke to a range of academics, government departments, and disability charities. An evidence gap was identified around disabled people's experiences of accessing private sector activities, goods and services. The scarcity of data on barriers to private sector activities, goods and services means there is limited evidence for understanding how to improve and regulate such provisions.
Taking forward IDTF recommendations, this qualitative research specifically focuses on identifying the barriers faced by disabled people and the solutions they suggest for making access easier.
In this research, "activities, goods and services" are considered to cover a range of private sector provisions such as shopping, banking, restaurants, entertainment and leisure, and sports and exercise facilities. For a full definition, please see Section 9: Glossary.
Recurring themes which shape disabled people's experiences in accessing and engaging with activities, goods and services include:
- different barriers which influence accessibility through the physical design of the built environment, digital design of online services, and the design of systems and processes
- strategies that disabled people often employ to improvise and adapt to navigate access and engagement barriers
- the cost of inaccessibility to activities, goods and services, and of strategies to achieve access
- the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on disabled people's access and engagement with activities, goods and services
- suggested solutions from participants for improving the inclusiveness of activities, goods and services in the future
Disabled people identified a wide range of barriers in accessing and engaging with activities, goods and services. The nature of the barriers varied, and individuals were affected in a range of different ways. Across those interviewed, reported barriers they experienced related to three key areas, which were:
the physical design of the built environment
the digital design of online services
the design of systems and processes
Physical design of spaces could undermine disabled people's access in different ways. Physical design includes both access to buildings, and accessibility of facilities and layouts once inside. Barriers in relation to physical design were particularly reported by those who are neurodiverse, or with impairments affecting mobility and stamina, breathing or fatigue.
Examples disabled people gave of inaccessible design features included buildings that only have stair access, restrictive layouts such as narrow aisles and walkways that are hard to navigate.
This made shopping, going to restaurants and using other services difficult and created multiple restrictions for navigating daily activities. For some, inaccessible physical design also created unwanted social interactions and embarrassment.
Although some larger supermarkets were praised for being more physically accessible than some smaller shops, neurodiverse participants noted that big shops could be a flashpoint for overstimulation. They described how overwhelming the shopping experience can be, especially without the opportunity to take a break.
Disabled people could experience overstimulation in services other than shopping, particularly in busy environments of cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, theatres or cinemas, and leisure and exercise facilities like gyms and pools. For some, this undermined access and engagement opportunities.
One participant also noted that changes to supermarket layouts could cause confusion, and were a barrier to access.
Toilets were mentioned by many disabled people, with the lack of available or sufficient toilets for customer use particularly affecting those with bladder or bowel issues.
Alongside the lack of available accessible toilets, disabled people described barriers to accessing toilets, including those seemingly set aside for use by disabled people. Staff members were often perceived as gatekeepers regulating access to locked toilets, which undermined independence and created an unwanted sense of being treated differently.
Although disabled people thought that there were often simple measures that could be put in place to remove these barriers, they felt that disabled people were either not being listened to or that organisations are unaware of the ways in which they are restricting access to their services.
With service provision increasingly shifting from physical to online environments, particularly after the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19), participants discussed barriers around digital design and accessibility. Digital services could be both beneficial and problematic to disabled people depending on their needs, their access to digital services and their ability to use them.
Digital exclusion was noted as undermining some disabled people's ability to engage with a range of online services, including essentials such as utilities and banking. This could have particular implications for inclusion given that disabled people are disproportionately digitally excluded, with 15% of disabled adults never having used the internet in 2020, as detailed in our Internet users, UK: 2020 bulletin. Participants emphasised how important it is for those who lack digital infrastructure or skills to still be able to access services and receive support.
Online services could present considerable cognitive demands. The multiplicity of passwords required was reported to be a major barrier, especially where people were not familiar with using technology. This appeared particularly challenging for participants with memory and learning, understanding or concentration impairments.
Participants also highlighted the importance of website accessibility, providing examples of where websites had and had not met their needs. Some participants with learning, understanding or concentration impairments also highlighted a priority for accessible and digestible information such as easy read and video formats.
Others described difficulties with functional aspects of websites such as a lack of screen-reader accessibility, or colour blind settings.
Participants with mobility impairments talked about their online shopping being delivered to places that are difficult to access, such as at the bottom of the stairs. This was an issue with online communication where special delivery instructions were not followed.
More positively, online shopping was said to enable access to groceries from the comfort of home for some participants, creating a sense of choice and control over the shopping experience. This appeared particularly important for those who experienced physical barriers accessing shops or who avoided overstimulating environments.
Some felt that the development of more online systems, such as ordering to a table in a bar or restaurant, made access and engagement easier for disabled people and created a sense of choice and control over the experience.
For those who could access it, online banking offered benefits, particularly around the ease of balance checking.
However, closure of local bank branches was seen as a barrier to those experiencing digital exclusion or those facing difficulties accessing online banking because of their impairments. Additionally, many valued the access to in-person flexible support in branches, which appeared to facilitate engagement with banking. Some participants described experiences of having to travel further to access their nearest branch, which could undermine access.
Design of systems and processes
Many of the online and in-person access barriers that disabled people faced related to inflexible systems and processes, which did not meet the needs of individual disabled people. This applied across the range of activities, goods and services, with many barriers linked to a perceived lack of customer support.
Systems with complex and multi-layered processes, such as those required to access a bank account or organise a return of goods, could be difficult to navigate and appeared overly demanding and stressful for some.
Customer services, particularly online or telephone, were perceived as impenetrable by some participants, who described finding it very difficult to speak to customer service representatives to explain specific needs.
Participants also gave examples of organisations being inflexible with their communication preferences and needs, which could undermine access and engagement, for example for those with hearing or memory impairments.
However, some service providers, including utilities, banks, delivery services and private transport providers, were identified by participants as offering customers opportunities to flag additional needs, which appeared positive.
Participants also highlighted airports as having provided a positive experience to customers through their special assistance approach. This enabled access to airplane travel for those who may otherwise have been unable to do so, though requiring the availability of support staff for delivery.Back to table of contents
Workarounds and strategies to navigate access and engagement barriers could be costly financially, emotionally, or in the time and effort involved.
Participants discussed the impact of additional financial costs incurred by disabled people to be able to access and engage with activities, goods and services.
Participants spoke about needing specialist equipment that is more expensive than similar equipment designed for non-disabled people, as well as facing extra costs for insurance.
Participants also spoke about facing additional hidden costs and having limited choice. Some described only being able to access and engage by using more expensive options, such as taking taxis, signing up to more expensive pools or gyms, or having to buy "last minute" tickets because of fluctuating impairments.
Some participants also noted incurring extra costs and lack of available choice when shopping. For example, budget shops were often said to not provide home delivery, and some had to sign up for more targeted (but expensive) online delivery slots where their impairments required this.
Emotional, time and physical costs
Access restrictions and the advanced preparation required for making an outing possible were said to limit participants' sense of spontaneity and freedom.
Participants with fluctuating impairments described difficulties with preparations, as they did not know how they might feel day-to-day. Some participants felt they needed to plan for a day as if they could be experiencing their worst symptoms.
Participants who had limited energy made trade-offs between different tasks they could do, resulting in them being unable to engage with some activities.
Some participants noted that the preparation required to access and engage came with physical and mental costs, including exhaustion.
The lack of choice and flexibility to be able to undertake activities limited participants' ability to engage fully with different areas of life.
Disclosure and vulnerability
Some participants reflected on a conflict around needing support but not wanting to have to ask for it. Asking for help was perceived as requiring disclosure of disability which contributed towards perceptions of being different and potentially vulnerable. This was particularly complex for those with invisible impairments, and those who did not identify as disabled when needing to ask for help.
While some participants accepted the need to disclose their disability to get support, doing so could still come with feelings of frustration, discomfort, fear and shame. Some participants described feeling vulnerable to potential negative judgement when asking for the support they need based on past experiences.
When accessing leisure centres, some did not feel welcome, that they were judged, equipment and classes were not adapted to individual needs, and they were uncomfortable about asking for help from staff.
However, some disabled people with visible impairments provided examples of where assistance had been offered without having to explicitly ask for it. This offer of help appeared moving and surprising, and was linked to those individuals extending care, courtesy, and support. Empathetic and supportive staff were described as making a beneficial difference to experiences of access and engagement.
Vulnerability was also described in relation to physical impairments and the need to depend on others for support to get about. Examples include earlier explored physical design barriers, such as gaining access to buildings and navigating restricted layouts. Where a trusted personal assistant may not be available, some participants found it difficult to ask for help from other people.
Vulnerability through self-identification was particularly expressed by those identifying as women and ethnic minorities. These participants described how their gender and ethnicity made them feel more vulnerable to discrimination or harm, in addition to that experienced through their impairment.Back to table of contents
This section explores solutions suggested by disabled people to improve their access and engagement with activities, goods and services in the future.
Inclusive by design
Participants suggested the need for more inclusive design, particularly in physical spaces, to meet the needs of people with a diverse range of impairments. These included ramps as standard, improved toilet availability and access, and aisles sufficiently wide for wheelchair access.
Break rooms and access to quiet spaces were seen as important for participants with a range of impairments, and particularly for those who described experiencing sensory overload in large, busy, bright and noisy supermarkets.
Quiet times for shopping, leisure and exercise facilities were also seen as important. It was suggested that quiet times, which offer a calmer experience and more access to staff support, could be formalised to enable people with diverse needs to access goods and services.
However, there were suggestions that more thought be given to when quiet times are provided, to accommodate a broader range of needs.
"Nothing about us without us"
Participants raised the importance of listening to disabled people with a diverse range of impairments and involving them in decision-making related to the design and provision of activities, goods and services that impact their lives.
Involving disabled people in service decisions was suggested as an important way of ensuring their priorities and needs are met, as well as enhancing their sense of choice and freedom.
Participants felt it was important for activities, goods and services to be designed with disabled people in mind so that they could actively participate without having to request adjustments or assistance.
Participants also suggested that physical spaces should be designed with an understanding of the diversity of disabled people's needs.
Increased awareness and empathy
When asked about the change they would most like to see in the world, the majority of participants said they wished for better awareness and empathy from both service providers and the general public. Many participants reported a lack of understanding about the impact of various impairments, particularly those that are invisible.
Education and role models were seen by participants as key to improving awareness of different impairments, especially those that are invisible.
Some participants perceived the current public transport information campaigns around invisible impairments as potentially contributing to increased acceptance, and reflecting small steps towards to bigger societal change.
Offering discreet and meaningful ways of declaring needs was seen as a positive solution for some participants. Others felt it might be preferable for people to be more aware and sensitive to everyone's needs for support, including those of non-disabled people, rather than disabled people having to identify themselves.
There may never be a single way of declaring additional needs that suits everyone. Participants felt it important that any approaches to declaring additional needs be as discreet as possible, and bring direct benefit.
It was felt to be important to make support readily available, enabling disabled people to be comfortable and confident in asking for it. Suggestions included things such as signs in supermarkets or clearer signposting to help on websites.
To reduce the emotional and financial burden on disabled people, participants suggested increasing the flexibility of customer services, and communicating clearly and consistently about options for accessing services.
Participants suggested that understanding and accommodating support needs for all customers might make life better and easier for everyone, not just disabled people. Additionally, they felt that acknowledging everyone's differing needs and preferences could alleviate the pressure on disabled people to disclose their impairment in order to access the required support.
This research has provided a snapshot of disabled people's needs and priorities for access and engagement, and their proposed solutions for how barriers may be removed. Disabled people have a diverse range of individual experiences, and understanding and accommodating people's needs could enable fuller and more meaningful participation, with potential benefits for businesses and society as a whole.Back to table of contents
Disabled people's experiences with activities, goods and services in the UK: sample information
Dataset | Released 14 July 2022
Sample information for qualitative research on disabled people's experiences with activities, goods and services in the UK.
In this research, we use the term "disabled people" to refer to those who took part in this research. This includes people with different impairments, aged 18 years and over.
As recommended by the Inclusive Data Task Force (IDTF), we adopted the biopsychosocial model of disability in our approach to barriers. This approach recognises the role of environmental factors in the creation of disability, as well as the relevance of associated impairments and their effects.
To define an impairment in this research, we referred to the Government Statistical Service (GSS) harmonised definition; this identifies impairments based on activities a person cannot perform or has difficulty performing because of their health condition or illnesses.
The GSS harmonised questions were asked of participants in the recruitment process, meaning that impairment status is self-reported.
Participants were asked if any of their reported illnesses or conditions affect them in the following areas:
vision (for example blindness or partial sight)
hearing (for example deafness or partial hearing)
mobility (for example walking short distances or climbing stairs)
dexterity (for example lifting or carrying objects, using a keyboard)
learning or understanding or concentrating
stamina or breathing or fatigue
socially or behaviourally (for example associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes Asperger's, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD))
Activities, goods and services
In this research, "activities, goods and services" are considered to cover a range of private sector provisions, including:
shopping - for food, clothes, or anything else; online or in person
entertainment and leisure
banking and utilities such as energy companies or phone providers
restaurants, pubs and hotels
sports and exercise facilities
services including going to the hairdresser or hiring a plumber or electrician
In this research, digital exclusion refers to how people described their access and engagement experiences.
In addition, the Government Digital Inclusion Strategy (2014) identifies four requirements for a person to be considered digitally included, which are:
access: the ability to go online and connect to the internet, which includes issues relating to accessibility, location, cost, technology, devices, infrastructure and language.
skills: the ability to use the internet safely and effectively, which requires literacy skills, digital skills (see Annex A for details of the 'Essential Digital Skills Framework'), security skills and confidence
motivation: wanting and agreeing to use the internet, which relates to perceived risks, necessity and benefits, including financial, social, health and well-being benefits
trust: for example fear of crime, misuse, online harms, and including issues relating to identity, security, standards and reputation
Those who are digitally excluded are lacking in one or all of access, skills, motivation or trust to engage digitally.Back to table of contents
From February to March 2022, Humankind Research conducted 56 in-depth interviews with disabled people across the UK on behalf of the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Humankind Research is an independent research agency specialising in research for charities and government bodies.
The research process included two stages for each participant. These were a 10-to-15-minute pre-interview briefing call, and a 75-minute in-depth interview.
Approach to sampling and recruitment
A maximum variation purposive sampling approach was used to gather a wide range of perspectives relating to access and engagement with activities, goods and services. The sampling frame for this research therefore included:
those with a variety of impairment types
a range of locations (across the UK, rural and urban) and ages
a spread of self-reported gender identities
people from minority ethnic groups,
people with different employment statuses
This approach was used to explore how these different characteristics may shape access and engagement experiences. The sample information in our accompanying dataset provides information on the characteristics of participants, for the planned and achieved sample.
Participants were primarily sampled based on their self-reported ease of access to activities, goods and services. This was captured by adapting the Life Opportunities Survey questions on identified ease of access, categorised into three groups, which were:
less significantly impacted
very significantly impacted
In each impairment category, we aimed to include one less significantly impacted, two significantly impacted and three very significantly impacted participants.
Participants were recruited using the Government Statistical Service (GSS) Impairment Harmonised Standard's nine impairment categories, which were:
learning, understanding, or concentrating
stamina, breathing, or fatigue
social or behavioural
Participants were recruited through a professional, independent recruiter using a pre-existing panel who have agreed to be contacted for potential research participation on the topic of disability and impairments.
Design and materials
A 10 to15-minute pre-interview briefing call was held with participants prior to the main interview. This was to outline the research process in detail, ensure informed consent, and ask about any adjustments that participants required. Participants were also provided with a list of prompts to help prepare for the interview, including examples of activities, goods and services. The participant materials used in the in-depth interviews are available on request from firstname.lastname@example.org.
A participant-led, conversational approach was taken in the 75-minute interviews, to allow participants to discuss their daily lives and what was most important to them. The flexible interview format accommodated the specific needs and preferences of each participant, for example regular breaks, support from a personal assistant, and the potential use of a British Sign Language interpreter. Participant preference for interview mode was discussed during the pre-briefing call, with most interviews then conducted by Zoom (41), and the remainder by phone (15).
Two expert advisory groups guided the research to ensure that all research materials reflected the diverse needs of those living with impairments. The "experts by profession" advisory group included academics, policy colleagues, disability charities and regional stakeholder networks. The "experts by experience" advisory group included disabled people with relevant lived experience.
Approach to analysis
In-depth interviews were audio recorded following participants' consent, and were then transcribed verbatim. Interview transcripts were analysed thematically using coding to identify themes, patterns and concepts within participants' accounts. Initial interview transcripts were coded using open, descriptive coding, with initial codes being organised into a coding framework. This formed the basis of continued analysis in NVivo 12 (QSR, Australia), with codes being further developed and adapted as analysis progressed. Findings were constantly compared within and between cases to test and explore initial themes, and differences were actively sought.
Strengths and Limitations
The main strengths of this research are:
the qualitative research design enabled better understanding of how barriers are experienced, the impact they have on people's lives, and disabled people's perspectives on what could help in the future
flexible, participant-led approaches to interviews enabled exploration of the perspectives of disabled people themselves, rather than testing predetermined hypotheses or exploring predefined areas of interest
approaches to interviews and materials used were adapted to meet individual participants' needs and to try to maximise accessibility
familiarity and rapport were built using a pre-briefing call to introduce the participant to the research and the researcher
support from advisory groups throughout the research process ensured the appropriacy and relevance, maximising the potential benefit and minimising potential risk of harm
The main limitations of this research are:
the generalisability of the research findings are limited to the concepts presented by participants, which also may not apply in different contexts or settings, and may change over time
although sampling was based on primary impairment, most participants described having multiple impairments; this limited the opportunities to provide insights around impairment-specific barriers, while also highlighting the variety of people's experiences, and complexity of navigating multiple impairments day-to-day
we actively sought to include those with a wide range of characteristics to explore how these may affect people's experiences individually or in combination; because of the range of characteristics across a small sample, limited interpretation can be made into the influence of specific characteristics such as gender identity, ethnicity and location on disabled people's experiences
recruiting through an existing research panel may have excluded those who do not usually participate in research, and recruitment and interviews also predominantly took place online, which may have excluded those who do not have internet access from participating in this research; however, findings on digital exclusion undermining access to online services suggest that certain relevant experiences may have still been captured in the research
This publication represents the outcome of a collaborative effort. The Centre for Equalities and Inclusion Qualitative Research Team are grateful for the expert advice, contributions and assistance provided by many people throughout this project. Most notably, our "experts by experience" and "experts by profession" advisory groups. Our experts by profession group comprised Bethany Bale (Disability Rights UK), Mark Carew (Leonard Cheshire), Rachael Graham (Sense), Phil Hastwell (Scope), Michael Potts (Regional Stakeholder Network North East), Mark Priestley (University of Leeds) and Ed Warner (Motionspot).
We would specifically like to acknowledge the help provided at important stages of the project by:
Jess Lister, Tom Silverman, Cleo Henry, and Kerry Poulson - Humankind Research
Marc Verlot, Louise Miles, and Armineh Soorenian - Disability Unit, Cabinet Office
Thomas Shakespeare - The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Nicholas Watson - University of Glasgow
Contact details for this Statistical bulletin
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