Swedish government proposes extended discrimination law

Ever since the Swedish Anti-Discrimination Act tightened its requirements and began to cover lack of accessibility on January 1, 2015, the exemption for companies with less than ten employees has been debated diligently. On August 24, the government issued a bill proposing removing the exception.

The argument for an exception is that small companies generally have less resources and therefore would suffer extra hard from the need to address inadequate accessibility. The counterargument is that more than 90% of companies in goods and services have fewer than ten employees, which means that most shops and restaurants are not currently covered by the acquis.

The Swedish Consumer Agency has conducted a survey showing that the majority of companies with fewer than ten employees state that they are working actively to increase accessibility. Half of the stores say they have made improvements in accessibility over the last two years, but the survey has not been able to measure a corresponding increase in actual accessibility.

What does accessibility really cost

The Discrimination Act contains a clause which means that an action can only be considered reasonable if the operator is able to bear the cost of it. In the new bill, the government argues that costs for addressing lack of acccessibility should be financed in the ordinary course of business.

It sounds undeniably strange, considering how extensive and expensive some renovations tend to be. However, the explanation may be in an interesting difference in this bill compared to that which led to the amendment of the law which made lack of accessibility a reason for discrimination.

The bill that led to the change of law in 2015 (2013/14: 198) states:

Accessibility measures refer essentially to items that may be attributed to support or personal service, information and communication, and the physical environment.

In the bill presented in August (2016/17: 220), the paragraph begins alike but ends considerably more vaguely:

Accessibility measures refer essentially to items that may be attributed to support or personal service, information and communication, as well as certain physical environment measures.

In the section dealing with socioeconomic consequences, the wording is even more careful:

This may include costs for personal support and service in the form of recruiting human resources. Furthermore, the costs may include measures to make accessable information or adapted communications, as well as certain commitments regarding the physical environment that may be considered reasonable.

Perhaps the legislator thinks it's about giving more personal service in the form of explaining, leading or retrieving? At least there are words that suggest it:

In addition, many such actions are of the kind that they are not really different from what follows from the general consideration, respect and helpfulness of people.

An important measure or a blow in the air?

To respect each other, show empathy and give a helping hand are both obvious and important acts, but does legislation really make people more helpful? And how do you measure that a store has given enough support?

According to Statistics Sweden, 92% of Swedish companies in trade, 89% in hotels and restaurants, 99% in culture and 90% in transport, have less than ten employees. According to the government, 65,000 retail companies, 24,000 companies in the restaurant industry and 27,000 transport companies in Sweden will be subject to the amendment, if it becomes implemented.

But I wonder, how much difference will the change in the regulation do if it's just about normal common sense? Attitudes and awareness are definitely key pillars for achieving inclusion, but good will does not suffice as a solution when a person is prevented from entering a store or theater due to poor accessibility. A law that has already been criticized for being unclear is likely to become even more blurred, which can hardly be good for anyone.

Susanna Laurin
VD, Funka