Disability discrimination from IKEA; how my love affair with a furniture retailer came to an abrupt halt

It’s not a secret that I’ve loved Ikea. Perhaps a love for a furniture retailer is bizarre. After all, I don’t really need to buy furniture all that often. But when I do, I like it to be cheap, lightweight and easy to assemble. I used to go on evenings out to Ikea with my best friend, for fun. Even though I didn’t need to buy furniture. I always waited to get my scented tealights there, as well as a random bowl or jar I might need from time to time. I got a set of VAKEN glasses there when I realised that the only real drinkware I owned was a set of vibrant UV-reactive pint glasses. Ikea has been somewhere I’ve been loyally going to for absolutely anything that they sold, if I needed it.

Their general Swedish-ness helped. As did the “we’re a really bright and happy place and we totally care about our employees” vibe that they tried to put out. But Ikea has been soured for me and I honestly can’t look past it. I’m not welcome there, and it’s obvious.

In my desperation to find a part-time job that won’t exhaust me to the point of hospitalisation, (because a couple surviving on a single income is simply not possible), I of course applied to Ikea. There was a part time position available to advise customers about solar panels. It honestly sounded like a dream. I could be there in my wheelchair, in a nice wide open workspace, talking about a subject of great personal interest, with a best friend in the same building if I ever needed a hand. Apparently there is an accessible toilet for staff that I would have absolutely loved, in comparison to normal public ones that you can’t even turn around in.

I was fairly confident that hiring someone like me wouldn’t be a daunting prospect to the people at Ikea, because my friend has informed me of wheelchair users working there before, including one with an Assistance Dog that could be seen happily trotting around by her side. That anecdote was the one that gave me the most confidence.

Obviously, in my cover letter, I had to explain that I am disabled and awaiting a new Assistance Dog, from Canine Partners. There’s no point in hiding something like that. There’s no point in pretending that I’m able-bodied, and then turning up to an interview in my chair, and then later needing to go off on the training course with my new dog. So I was upfront about it, which I still think was the right thing, because legally, it shouldn’t have affected my chance of getting the job.

After a good while of getting nothing but the original automated email, it became rather obvious that I didn’t get the job. I was disappointed, but decided to ask for advice about my application to improve my chances of success with the next employer. Most people do this over the phone after being declined, but I didn’t have my hearing aids yet (and it turns out they don’t work with the phone anyway), so I sent an email.

The HR administrator for Ikea Southampton replied to me, almost instantly. Initially, she apologised for the fact that I hadn’t been contacted properly, and asked if I was still interested in a role at Ikea. I said that I was, and I did say I would prefer something desk-based, because I am a wheelchair user, but I was still happy for other available roles.

Despite her initial ability to reply to me instantly, I heard nothing back. I had this creeping pang in my stomach that it was all down to two words; “wheelchair user.”

This woman found out that I was disabled and then she didn’t want to talk to me. I thought, she didn’t know a way to outright state that and get rid of me, so she just wasn’t going to say anything at all. That’s how most employers do it.

Almost a week later, this woman emailed me back. I was told that there is no such thing as a desk job at Ikea, and that all the other roles involved moving heavy objects, so Ikea basically can’t hire wheelchair users.

Both of these things are patent untruths. My friend worked at a desk there. It’s also untrue that you have to handle heavy things in all the sales roles. You can volunteer to be someone who uses the pump trucks, but it’s absolutely not mandatory. This is straight from the mouth of somebody who actually works there.

So the first act of disability discrimination here, is the HR administrator deliberately trying to discourage me from from seeking a job with Ikea, by telling me that there is not a single appropriate role for a wheelchair user.

But don’t forget, originally, I didn’t ask them to justify why they didn’t hire me. I asked for advice about my application. This was never addressed by the person who replied to me. She redirected it to “would you like any other roles.” Which leads me to believe there was probably another act of disability discrimination; deliberately ruling me out of the job just because I am a wheelchair user awaiting a new Assistance Dog.

I grew suspicious during the two months that I didn’t hear back about the job, because, on an Assistance Dog awareness site that I ran, a visitor, apparently surfing from Ikea, appeared a few times, using search terms about avoiding hiring someone with an Assistance Dog. I thought it would be one hell of a coincidence if the person considering my application had wound up on my own site, to try and find a way of flouting the law to avoid hiring me.

And it might be a coincidence. I may only be able to link it to the computer of the employee in question, if it was them, by going back through the visitor logs if this gets to court.

Because of the way I was spoken to and deliberately discouraged on the basis of disability, I wrote a letter of complaint to the Ikea headquarters in Warrington (as listed on consumer support websites), seeking assurance that this is not their official attitude towards disabled applicants.

You would think they’d take something like this seriously, but it’s been nearly a month and I’ve heard absolutely nothing. Maybe another act of discrimination will be not giving my official complaint the time of day. At this point I feel like wheelchair users just aren’t wanted at Ikea, as either customers or employees.

Companies are made up of lots of individual people, each with their own hates and prejudices, and they use these hates to act on behalf of the brand.

If they continue to ignore my letter I may very well approach my solicitor. For the time being, at least, it’s still illegal to treat disabled people like this. They just can’t seem to acknowledge that I’m a normal human being. I really don’t think that they see me as one.

This isn’t the first time Ikea Southampton have dropped the ball with wheelchair users, either. The refuge point for disabled people is up a flight of steps outside the fire exit. Staff missed it for years, until the fire alarm actually went off and a disabled woman couldn’t access it. Thankfully nobody was killed.

The things we seem to have here include:

  • Discrimination arising from a disability
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Direct discrimination

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