In this commentary, disability advocate Heather Watkins calls upon small business owners to ensure their storefronts are accessible so that everyone can “shop local” for the holidays and year-round.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
Every holiday season in the United States, after we’ve filled our bellies and given thanks, we set our focus on all the holiday sales. We direct our attention toward all the shiny, lit-up places with slashed prices. There’s “Black Friday” followed by Small Business Saturday with directives to “shop local” and support “mom and pop” shops while reducing our carbon footprints. The idea of shopping locally is great in theory, but it’s problematic if you are a disabled person with limited mobility or even a parent with a stroller.
It can be difficult to impossible to shop locally if you can’t gain entry due to stairs or narrow doorways and aisles. There may also be a lack of curb cuts, as well as inaccessible parking and restrooms. Factors like these have an impact on how many of us conduct business. Where I live in Roslindale, a section of Boston, there are still quite a few shops that have one or more steps. When I spy steps or no way to access the sidewalk, it’s a sure bet that I won’t even bother patronizing the business.
I’d rather shop where there is smooth access to save my energy. Sometimes that means going to bigger chain stores that are located further away and perhaps out of my community. At least I know they’ll typically have accessible parking, level entryways with automatic doors, wider aisles, and roomier restroom stalls for disabled folks.
As a disabled person born with a neuromuscular disability who uses mobility aids such as canes and a manual wheelchair on occasion, I dream of communities where the accessibility needs of disabled folks are met throughout the holiday season with good cheer.
There are over one billion disabled people around the globe (and counting, due to Long Covid). And it’s been over thirty-two years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So, why don’t small businesses have holiday (and year-round) marketing plans that include disabled people as a viable consumer group and valuable part of the community? The message here is that there is no welcome mat for disabled people.
How can businesses roll out the welcome mat? Include people with disabilities in your advertising. Put an accessibility logo on the door or corner of the shop window. Share accessibility information on your website. And of course, be sure your shop is actually accessible. This isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s required by the ADA. Beyond that, it’s important to recognize that people with disabilities are a largely untapped consumer base, so ensuring your small business is accessible will actually open up pathways to additional revenue.
While small business owners may be concerned about costs of accessibility upgrades, far too many are seemingly unaware that there are tax incentives to assist them in complying with the ADA that include credits and deductions for accessibility upgrades. This can be paired with additional financial assistance measures, like matching grant initiatives that local community development programs offer to address issues like stair removal, ramp installation, and storefront improvements. Such programs can make a world of difference in offsetting costs for businesses where economic hardship may be a big concern, thereby expanding the opportunity for everyone in the community to patronize local shops.
But since there is no central entity monitoring adherence to the ADA, it is incumbent upon people who encounter access barriers to file complaints about inaccessibility and follow up. Navigating around and then reporting non-compliant stores can be a time and energy drain, like playing a forced game of hopscotch instead of shopping trips that run smoothly with seamless access.
It’s also important to consider the impact on fostering a sense of community. Disabled people often go shopping with nondisabled family members and friends, and if a business is not accommodating, these shoppers have no choice but to take their patronage elsewhere. This becomes a loss for everyone—people with disabilities, those in their company, businesses, and the broader community. Widening the lens, both the ethical implications and economic imperatives become clear: potential revenue loss and lessening of community morale creates ripples of harm.
In recent years I’ve found myself feeling frustrated overall by shopping at brick-and-mortar stores and instead doing the majority of my shopping online. And since the onset of the pandemic nearly three years ago, this has become my only way of shopping, to ensure my safety by not having to endure crowds and long lines—especially during holidays.
In future festive seasons, I hope the local shops in my community make the necessary changes to become barrier-free and welcoming. I want us to be the kind of community filled with beautiful flickering lights and bursting at the seams with joy for all—a place where I won’t have a second thought about how to join the fun and get around with my energy and patience intact. That kind of peace of mind and goodwill would truly be the best holiday present.