How shops sign away the self-worth of disabled people

My mother was gleeful. We had identified a pair of designer trainers coveted by her grandson and she had resolved to buy them for his Christmas present. She braved the Saturday scrum in Footasylum, queued on painful legs for the till and wrestled the shoebox into her shopping bag. It was then she was told that her custom was not allowed.

Like many people with disabilities, my mother uses a “chip and signature” debit card because she is unable to manage a pin. The cards, issued by Visa and Mastercard, operate in the same way as chip and pin, except that when they are inserted into a card reader, a message informs the trader that a signature is required.

Banks issue them to customers who can’t memorise or can’t key in a personal security number. However, Footasylum staff informed her that it could not complete the transaction because the company did not accept signatures as a valid verification and the bill was more than the £30 contactless payment limit.

My mother was run over and seriously injured on her way home from work five years ago. Once a daily visitor to the high street, she can now only leave the house when there’s someone to take her and her rare shopping trips have become her chief pleasure.

Because brain damage from the accident means she can’t memorise a pin, she’s unable to use cash machines and therefore relies on her Visa card to pay for goods. And every so often she endures humiliation when store staff refuse to accept it.

At Topshop her attempt to treat her granddaughter to a jacket was thwarted when her card was declared invalid, and on a one-off trip to Asda she had to abandon her shopping, after it had been packed into bags, because the cashier and the store manager insisted that they could not accept a signature. Both stores declared it was company policy.

Head office in each case confirmed that it was not so, and that new guidance would be issued to staff. Footasylum, however, stood firm. Its refusal of chip and signature cards was a business decision for security reasons, customer services told me.

It is, in fact, illegal for traders who accept card payments to discriminate against these cards, according to the financial trade association UK Finance. “The 2010 Equality Act has reinforced the legal responsibility for all businesses to cater for customers with protected characteristics – and this includes accepting a chip and signature card,” it says.

“Every pin terminal is designed to accept them – simply put the card in and the retailer will be automatically prompted to ask for a signature. A card should never be rejected simply because it is chip and signature.”

Except it often is. The bestselling author Joanne Harris relies on one of these cards and says that she is turned away by checkout staff every few weeks.

“I suffer from dyscalculia, the inability to process and remember numbers,” she says. “I’ve been told by JD Sports staff, and by its customer service, that it’s company policy to refuse the cards for security reasons, except in the case of international customers. My local Tesco has refused it on several occasions, despite a letter from head office telling them otherwise, and House of Fraser apologised fulsomely after it did the same before repeating the error. This behaviour, either as a result of poor training or because of an illegal policy, denies access to a disabled minority. It humiliates me in public and makes me feel like a criminal. But my main concern is for elderly people, who may be reluctant to state their rights, and may be more likely to believe the ‘store security policy’ myth.”

JD Sports, Tesco and House of Fraser all confirmed to the Observer that, contrary to what store staff claimed, they did accept chip and signature cards and would remind their staff of the fact.

The problem seems to be ignorance, rather than intolerance.

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