Sophie Morgan, a 32-year-old TV presenter, was shopping in London's busy Covent Garden recently when she decided to check out the Charlotte Tilbury makeup store, which is right in the heart of the cobbled shopping district.
Morgan is a TV presenter for the BBC and Channel 4, including for the documentary series Unreported World. She is also director of a property investment company, a trained artist, a model, an ambassador for the charity Scope, and a wheelchair user.
When she approached the luxury store, which is fronted by a beautiful maroon and gold facade, she realised there was no ramp. This presented a problem for Morgan, who was paralysed from the chest down in a car crash at the age of 18.
She waited outside the store and a shop assistant asked her what she wanted. When Morgan explained she wanted to come into the store, they said there was nothing they could do to help her in because the store did not have disabled access.
“I was infuriated. Totally and utterly infuriated. I didn’t know where to turn, I didn’t know who I could complain to – I just thought it was really unfair,” she tells BuzzFeed News. She considered writing a letter to the management, but decided against it.
“For me it’s not the end of the world, and I’m quite used to it, but if I was a young girl, really excited [to be visiting the store], then I would be made to feel really unwelcome, and that’s not a very nice thing at all.”
There are guidelines in place to try to prevent, where possible, this sort of situation from happening. The Equality Act deems it organisations' duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure their services can be accessed by disabled people, where it is practical.
But there are “loopholes” because the law is “very vague” on what exactly reasonable means, meaning accessibility varies widely from street to street and from city to city, Morgan says.
Research earlier this year from disability group DisabledGo found that nearly a quarter of UK fashion retailers have no step-free access and only 10% offer hearing loops to help shoppers with hearing aids.
Even if a shop has invested in improving access in-store, staff can accidentally create barriers for disabled shoppers, such as using an accessible changing room as a temporary stock room, Morgan says.
“I was in a shop called & Other Stories [in Oxford Circus, London]. They’ve got on the left what’s meant to be a wheelchair-accessible changing room. I’ve been in there twice now and it’s always full of stock, they don’t have it open,” she says.
“They just looked at me awkwardly and passed me on to a manager who didn’t know what to do and gave me a discount... And that’s a brand new shop in one of the busiest shopping centres on the planet.”
There is a huge pool of disabled spending power they could be tapping into, she says, the so-called “purple pound” estimated to be worth £249 billion to the economy. One in five people in the UK have some form of disability, be that limited mobility or a hearing or visual impairment. “That's enormous," Morgan says. And yet disabled people can feel “ostracised” from the high street.
Her solution is a scheme she describes as a bit like a “Michelin guide” for disabled shoppers, symbolised by something called the Mannequal. It's a wheelchair for mannequins, designed for stores to put in their display windows as a sign of inclusivity, and to send the message to disabled consumers that they are welcome inside.
Morgan designed it herself in 2010 and approached a number of chains with it. Now she has drawn up a new hit list of companies she will start approaching next month.
“You name it,” she says. “It's the H&M’s, the Topshops, the big high street shops, but also the likes of Selfridges, the John Lewises, the M&S’s – all of them.”
Morgan is conscious that she does not want to come across as “militant” in her aim, and she doesn't want to guilt businesses into making changes. But she wants to encourage them to think more carefully about disability access because it's the right thing to do, and because it makes business sense.
She had a run of limited success with the Mannequal in 2010 but was ultimately left disappointed. The year she launched it, Debenhams displayed it as part of one of its fashion campaigns; Adidas, too, displayed it during the 2012 Paralympics.
But Morgan was left disheartened when the sports brand then removed it.
“Literally the day the games finished, the chair was out,” she says. “And I was two steps forward, five steps back. It was really frustrating.”
She also had conversations with Topshop at the time, "the holy grail of the high street", which she says fell through, leaving her “so demoralised I sort of put it to one side”.
“I was so disheartened that the idea had been treated so badly and wasn’t really treated as significant,” she tells BuzzFeed News.
But now, older and wiser, she is resurrecting it with renewed vigour.
At the time, nobody had properly calculated the value of the purple pound and Morgan thinks this is what ultimately held her back.
As a businesswoman herself, Sophie understands money - "the language they speak"- and hopes that armed with these figures she can encourage companies to see that investing in making life easier for disabled shoppers will ultimately create a return.
“When I was knocking on doors seven years ago and no one was answering, I knew it was because I couldn’t say to them ‘I’m of value’, but now I know I can say I’m of value and they’ll say ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’
“We have to be able to prove our worth, and I know that’s sad but it’s the times we live in. It’d be great if all the big CEOs of these companies did this just because they thought it was the right thing to do. But they don’t. Because they don’t think it’s going to bring them in money.”
This time the Mannequal will be offered alongside consultancy from Enhance the UK, a charity that offers “all-round disability awareness” to organisations to challenge “the attitudes, perceptions, and expectations” surrounding disability.
“It’s about trying to improve standards so things get normalised,” Morgan explains. The Mannequal in the window should be “the last step” a shop takes in its journey to become more accessible.
“Behind that should be all the other things they’ve considered – training their staff and improving the shopping experience for every type of impairment before they consider putting that in their window,” she says.
They should think first about practical changes, like making aisles wider, adding easily visible contrasting colours on clothes hangers for visually impaired people, or installing grab handles on the walls so that people with limited mobility can get items down from a rail rather than having to ask someone for help.
“I know that sounds like a lot but really it’s not. [Compared with] the amount of things they [already] think about, this is just another part of the lexicon of design. It’s not huge and complicated, it's creative,” Morgan tells BuzzFeed News.
“I want them to get that it’s not just about popping a mannequin or a ramp in the shop.”
In recent years, brands have invested more and more in showing disabled catwalk models, or creating adverts that feature disabled people, which Morgan applauds. But she hopes her work with the Mannequal will bring about a longer-term commitment to change.
“It’s more than just a campaign: We are part of society and we’re completely left out of this entire space... We do see the odd thing and it is encouraging that there are disabled models being used, but it does feel a bit tokenistic sometimes.
“Yes, popping up on a catwalk every now and again gets headlines, I just don’t see it trickling down and normalising disability on the high street. I still have a really difficult time accessing goods and services.”
She adds: “It isn’t changing the game on the high street that needs to be changed, and that’s what I want to do now.”
Morgan also thinks disabled people get less attention than other groups. “There are various other minority groups being represented and considered but disability still seems to be the last one, and I still struggle to see why that is,” she says.
She understands that high street chains may feel they are taking a risk by putting their heads above the parapet, and may view the Mannequal with “trepidation” because displaying it is almost like claiming “We have totally nailed our access,” which, Morgan admits, could put them “in a quite vulnerable position if they’re not accessible all over the country”.
But she thinks the business case “is very compelling”. Her challenge will be convincing the fashion world of this.
“I want it to act as a symbol. If you were walking down the street and you saw a mannequin sat in a Mannequal, you would think: ‘That shop has everything I need – it has bigger changing rooms, the staff have been trained, and it’s got access, and also attitudes are better in there.’
“It’s very idealistic and I’m thinking ahead, but that’s what I’ve always wanted it to achieve.”
BuzzFeed News invited Topshop, Debenhams, Adidas, Charlotte Tilbury and & Other Stories to comment on Sophie's experience.
A spokesperson for Charlotte Tilbury extended "heartfelt apologies" to Sophie. While the lower ground floor was not accessible, there was a ramp that could be fitted to the step on the ground floor, "so it's very sad to hear that we have fallen short this time." She added all staff were "awareness trained" and the store would be happy to hear from Sophie about any recommended changes.
"We do our utmost to ensure our compliance with the Equality Act 2010 at all times," the spokesperson added. "We appreciate that access to services is not just about installing ramps and widening doorways to wheelchair users, it is about making services easier to use for all disabled people and please be assured that we are committed to achieving this."
& Other Stories said it took Sophie's experience "very seriously" and had now made store staff aware of the issue. "We’ve taken this complaint to heart and are very sorry to hear that Sophie Morgan has experienced such poor access," a spokesperson said.
"They are meant to be inclusive to everyone who wants to shop at & Other Stories and we sincerely apologise that they weren’t accessible when she visited."
Adidas, meanwhile, said it was "wholeheartedly committed to diversity and championing concepts that allow us to better support consumers with disabilities."
The retail landscape had evolved dramatically since 2012, a spokesperson said, with stores becoming increasingly digitised, making mannequins "perhaps not as common as they once were" but she said it would "welcome the opportunity" to discuss the concept of digitally displayed wheelchair mannequins with Sophie.
A spokesperson for Debenhams said it regularly trialled new visual merchandising concepts in store and would consider the Mannequal for future displays.
Topshop did not respond to requests for comment.