Serving Customers with Disabilities

Whether it’s in-person, by phone, chat or e-mail, anyone in a customer-facing role should receive training specifically on how to serve customers with disabilities without being offensive.

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Almost every business has opportunities to interact with people with disabilities. Some succeed, others fail miserably. Here are some of the things you should do if you don’t want to end up in the “fail miserably” category.

Types of Support

The first rule of providing support to customers with disabilities is HAVE MULTIPLE MODALITIES that use different senses. Calling is a hassle for people who are deaf and those who have speech issues, but is probably the preferred mechanism for people who are blind. Accessible chat is great for people who use dictation or those who can type fast but might not be the preferred mechanism for those who have slow internet access.

Don’t present one round hole of customer support and try to jam all your square peg customers into them.

Phone Support

Legend: CwD==Customer with Disability, CSR == Customer Support Rep

CwD: Hi, I have a disability and I am having trouble using your app with my assistive technology

CSR: Assistive Technology? What’s that???

Nothing frustrates a customer with disabilities more than getting a CSR who responds in that manner.

Above and beyond the basic questions that a CSR would normally ask, your IT personnel will need to know all assistive technology being used and their versions. Browser versions are also useful. Firefox 57 was notoriously unusable with NVDA.

If you have specific individuals identified to take calls from people with disabilities (or for bonus points, CSRs with disabilities to take calls from customers with disabilities) that will provide the best experience for everyone.

Many support centers use call statistics to evaluate how well a CSR is doing. CSRs should never, EVER be penalized for taking extra time provide support to your customers with disabilities. If your customer is using a relay service, has to repeat themselves because of a lack of speech clarity, or has to wait for something to announce on a screen before relaying the results by phone, the call is just flat-out going to take longer. Don’t implicitly encourage your CSRs to provide bad customer support because you are measuring them on how long they are taking on calls.

Also, consider having a special number just for accessibility-related calls to make them easier to route to your “point people”. If calls from customers with disabilities isn’t fully utilizing your staff member, they should be able take calls from customers without disabilities also.

Relay calls are what people who can’t speak clearly use when they have to make a phone call This kind of training doesn’t take much time (30–45 minutes including role playing, if that) and it’s worth doing it rather than having them fumble when they take the call.

Accessible Chat

My deaf daughter thinks accessible chat is the best thing ever. She can’t communicate on a landline and hates making voice calls in general. The accessible chat I personally like the best is Olark. Apple Business Chat is good too, but I’ve heard anecdotally that it is hard to get Apple’s attention when you are a small business.

E-mail

E-mail is another good and relatively low cost mechanism for customers with disabilities to request help. Just remember that your response content INCLUDING the template the email is based on must be accessible. Assuming HTML is being used for email, that means:

  • alt-text for non-decorative images
  • good color ratio for text as measured against whatever background color it happens to be hitting
  • using proper HTML to construct tables
  • Make sure buttons, links, etc. get announced as the objects they represent
  • Close captioning for every video, and a described audio soundtrack when needed (preferably in a link below the video player) for all videos
  • Good header structure, if your email is longer than one “page”. Pages are relative on tech, so you will have to guess on this one. If you read your email out loud in your head and it is taking too long, you probably need headers.
  • Set the default language for the email, and any words that are NOT in the default language.

Different content may trigger differing WCAG guidelines, but the ones identified above will get you most of the way for an HTML formatted email.

In-person service

When providing service in person, staff need to understand not only the language that they should use with the customer with a disability, but the actions that they should take (and should not take). Some non-exhaustive examples include:

How to determine if an animal is a service animal or a pet: In the US you are allowed to ask exactly TWO questions: 1) is the service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. And yes, I’ve said “animal” and not dog” because while the ADA restricts service animals to dogs, there are plenty of local regulations that have broadened that definition to include monkeys and miniature horses. Asking anything other than those two questions is a lawsuit waiting to happen. It doesn’t matter if you think the person is lying, unless the dog is not under the control of the person with a disability (i.e. being a nuisance), in a retail service setting you CANNOT ask the person with a dog to leave. Even pitbulls can be service animals, the ADA does not restrict service animals by breed. So the dog “looking scary” (but not actually being scary) or someone being allergic is just flat out not a valid excuse to refuse service to some with a service animal if the customer has provided reasonable answers the two questions you’re allowed to ask.

How to describe something to someone who is blind? Menus, clothes, cans of soup, the list is endless. In an in-person customer service setting, someone who is blind will in all likelihood need something described to them. Don’t be like Burger King and refuse to read a menu to someone who is blind. You will end up in a whole heap of brand tarnishment. And maybe the FDA will be breathing down your neck as well for not having Braille menus and not disclosing ingredients to a customer who asked.

How to take an order from someone who is deaf? Sometimes you have to get creative and pass written messages back and forth, pantomine (holding up two sizes of cups and letting the customer with hearing loss point to the one they want, for example) or fingerspell in ASL if you know how to do that. If you work in an area that has a large number of customers with hearing loss, you may be lucky and have a UbiDuo. People with hearing loss usually try to present comprehensive orders to avoid verbal questions, but questions can’t always be avoided.

How to process a return from someone with autism? Stores typically train their staff on how to spot a false return, right? Well, if your training includes things like “suspect people of shoplifting if they don’t make eye contact” that could be highly discriminatory against your shoppers with autism. Also, requiring a driver’s license can be problematic, since many people with disabilities don’t drive.

Conclusion

  1. Customers with disabilities are a very lucrative market. The numbers vary widely depending on who you are citing, but a common one is that disability influences $8 trillion in general spending and $1 trillion in discretionary spending (spending on stuff you DON’T have to buy).
  2. People in general don’t like it when corporations treat people with disabilities badly. So if your company is caught discriminating against someone with a disability, you will lose business from everyone, not just the group of people with the same disability
  3. Training is the cure for everything related to customer service, and how to treat people with disabilities is no exception.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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