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Edinburgh Tech Firm Looks to Support Disabled Shoppers During COVID-19

Ross Kelly

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Edinburgh tech firm

Welcome‘ is already being used in a range of venues across the UK, including banks, galleries, hotels and travel hubs. 

Social distancing, queues and changing opening times are just some of the new rules being implemented by supermarkets across the UK to help protect staff and customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While these new policies are vital in stemming the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives, they do pose a problem for a portion of the population.

According to Edinburgh-based technology company, Neatebox, these new rules can increase anxiety and pose a significant barrier to people with either a visible or hidden disability.

Neatebox founder, Gavin Neate, insisted that although new rules are meant to save lives, additional support for some of the country’s most vulnerable people is crucial.

“Supermarkets have had to adapt rapidly to an evolving situation, creating innovative ways to minimise the risk of viral spread. However, for millions, the new rules are impossible to follow without more support,” he said.

Neate added: “For individuals with autism, the rules can add an extra layer of anxiety. For someone who is blind, finding the end of the queue to enter the store is hugely difficult.

“Knowing where to stand on the 2 metre-spaced markers and when to move forward is impossible without help, while social distancing is reliant on other people being aware.

“Supermarkets have had to adapt quickly so there aren’t tactile markers or trained door staff able to effectively assist customers who require that level of additional support.”

In response, the firm is offering supermarkets across the country access to its ‘Welcome’ app to assist people during their visit. The free app allows customers to alert a venue in advance of their upcoming visit and highlight any specific assistance they require.

A venue or shop is then notified of the visit and receives an overview of the customer’s condition.

The app also provides staff with crucial guidance from appropriate charity organisations to aid interactions with a customer, including top tips for engaging with a person with a specific disability.

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One user of the ‘Welcome’ app, Siobhan Meade, is blind and relies on the app to shop. She revealed that her experience as a shopper is “entirely dependent on either the knowledge or common sense” of the staff member she encounters.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for improved accessibility options is crucial to her and 13 million other people living with disabilities across the country.

She said: “I never feel as blind as I do when I stand somewhere I don’t know and can’t find staff help. Supermarkets create the biggest barrier to my independence.

“Sometime’s we’ll be waiting for 30 minutes and often they seek to obtain the services of the youngest, newest and least able to communicate colleague and that was before the additional complexities of COVID-19. It’s so important that venues know that communications are central.

“At present, it isn’t necessarily possible to use online delivery. The creators of ‘Welcome’ know that their challenge is to install the app in new shops so that more people with all types of disability know it’s available and get genuine use out of it. If we can get this out there more widely, I’d head on to the high street and into shops more often.”

Meade added: “Knowing that I could head out to shops and, after lockdown, restaurants without being made to feel incapable would be amazing and give me a sense of control about how I want to be assisted.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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