“Accessible to everyone”: How shopping centres serve people with special needs

Megan Jessop, community lead at Westfield Tuggerah, one of many shopping centres that has implemented a Quiet Hour.

Shopping centres around the world are starting to make their properties more accessible for people with diverse needs by removing barriers and partnering with nonprofits.  

Recent years have seen shopping centres roll out Quiet Hours, when lighting and noise levels are adjusted for the needs of people with autism or sensory challenges, memory cafés, which cater to people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and apps that enable blind and the visually impaired to navigate their way around shopping centres.

Creating a more inclusive environment can be a complex process for shopping centre owners, but it has become increasingly important for businesses to align their diversity and inclusion practices with their customers’ values.

According to Accenture’s All in: Inclusion and Diversity drive shopper habits report, shoppers are not just turning away from retailers that do not share their values, they are turning toward those that do.

Forty-one per cent of shoppers have said that they have shifted at least 10 per cent of their business away from a retailer that does not reflect how important inclusion and diversity is to them. Diverse shoppers are even more likely to leave.  

Twenty-nine per cent of shoppers surveyed and still more diverse ones are likely to switch to a retailer that reflects the importance they place on inclusion and diversity, the study shows.

A key focus for Scentre Group

For the Scentre Group, owner of Westfield shopping centres in Australia and New Zealand, recognising and celebrating cultural diversity has been a key focus across their portfolio for some time.

“Our approach to diversity and inclusion is not new and is linked to our company purpose: creating extraordinary places, connecting and enriching communities,” a Scentre spokesperson said.

  • Westfield Woden in Canberra created a sensory-friendly environment in its centre in 2017 called The Calm Room. It is a quiet and safe place for children and adults to self-regulate.
  • In July of this year, Westfield Tuggerah in New South Wales introduced a “Quiet Hour” for individuals with autism, dementia and sensory sensitivities to shop in a calm environment. People with sensory sensitivities find bright lights and sounds of a busy mall overwhelming. Quiet Hour allows them to shop with less noise and dimmed lights. 
  • Westfield Innaloo in Western Australia recently launched The Memory Café, dedicated to create a welcoming space for customers with dementia.
  • And in 2016, the Westfield Garden City Shopping Centre in Brisbane partnered with the City of Melville and Alzheimer’s Australia WA to launch a Memory Café to support those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The initiative was aimed at creating a location where people suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s can come together in a safe, supportive and inclusive community space, enjoy a cup of coffee and connect through sharing their experiences and rediscovering memories.

Welcoming, safe and accessible to everyone: The Palms

Making their shopping centre welcoming, safe and accessible to everyone in the community is also a priority at The Palms Shopping Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Our work towards increased inclusivity and accessibility has been underway since the early 2010, and we continue to find new ways to improve by collaborating with experts, stakeholders and our customers and community,” said Andre Thompson, centre manager at The Palms. “We believe it is extremely important that our shopping centre is welcoming, safe and accessible to everyone in the community.”

According to Thompson, after the 2011 earthquakes closed the centre for seven months, they saw an opportunity to reposition The Palms Shopping Centre.

“We made improvements to become a first-class disability-friendly centre,” he said. “We have undergone many changes, including implementing many nation-leading sensory initiatives, to be recognised as the most accessible shopping centre in the South Island.”

Earlier this month, the shopping centre partnered with SkillWise to display artwork created by people with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities in honour of the International Day of People with Disability.

Last year, the shopping centre also partnered with the New Zealand Spinal Trust to raise awareness and funds for the trust over a weeklong national appeal which started on World Spinal Cord Injury Day in September. The New Zealand Spinal Trust helps those affected by spinal cord injury or impairment live independent, confident and productive lives despite immense challenges.

Thompson said the centre has also been working closely with Champion Centre in Christchurch, a centre that provides a range of services for children whose developmental progress is impacted by conditions such as Down syndrome, other genetic disorders, cerebral palsy, the consequences of prematurity, epilepsy, developmental dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder and brain injury.

Every year an event is hosted at The Palms in pre-opening hours and kids from The Champion Centre are invited for a sensory experience. This year, The Palms also hosted an extra-special sensory Puppet Show for The Champion Centre.

A growing awareness

Kiwi Property, owner of the Sylvia Park and LynnMall shopping centres in New Zealand, said there’s a growing awareness of the importance of catering to the needs of all New Zealanders, including those with specific accessibility requirements.

“That’s a good thing and hopefully that support will only continue to grow as time goes on,” a Kiwi Property spokesperson said.

“We’ve launched a number of activities for our access customers which have been well received, including most recently, our sensitive Santa experience, where children with sensory challenges can meet Father Christmas in a quiet, calm setting, before stores open. We’ll be looking to host other relevant experiences for access customers in the future.”

According to Kiwi Property, it is important for them that all people have the opportunity to enjoy their shopping centres and have been taking steps over a number of years to make their centres more accessible.

“That includes ensuring accessible drop-off points and car parking, ensuring our toilets and other facilities are suitable for people with special requirements, and thinking about the way we design our properties,” Kiwi Property stated.

“We’ve still got more work to do, but we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, and today all our retail assets have a Be.Accessible rating of gold or higher.”

Initiatives around the world

The Henry Sy-owned SM shopping chain in the Philippines, in partnership with the Autism Society Philippines, has run a workplace inclusion program for persons with autism since 2016 called “AutiSM at Work”. The initiative provides job opportunities for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

According to SM, the program has been complemented by disability sensitivity training for all frontline workers and in-store information for customers.

“#AutiSMatWork provides young adults on the spectrum to be productive contributors in a workplace,” SM stated.

Many shopping centres in the UK have also introduced a Quiet Hour in recent years to help those with autism and anxiety to shop in peace.

The National Autistic Society formed a partnership with shopping centre owner Intu in October 2017, and now 13 of the company’s centres have introduced the initiative, alongside other shopping centres across the country.

Earlier this year, Autism Nova Scotia started working with mall managers and stores in Canada to alter lights and sound at certain times and has facilitated discussions and one-on-one training on providing services to people with sensory challenges.

In April this year, the Halifax Shopping Centre introduced a “silent” Easter Bunny event for people with autism. 

According to Autism Nova Scotia, these kinds of events can be difficult for individuals on the autism spectrum, but it can be hard on families who may still want to participate.

“Having the silent Bunny, a silent Santa, give families an opportunity to come in as a family unit,” the organisation said.

According to Accenture’s report, there is no quick fix to becoming a leader in diversity and inclusion. The approach must be holistic, not halfhearted and must be sustained, not short-lived.

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