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Blog: Are you being served? Welcoming disabled consumers

Bela Gor, Business Disability Forum

Bela Gor

For anyone who has elderly relatives, my weekend will sound familiar. I went to visit my 89-year-old mother, which was lovely, but she had the usual list of tasks lined up for me.

These included freeing up memory on her mobile phone, painting the new garden fence and re-negotiating her TV and Broadband package. The latter was by far the hardest. Mum now has hearing loss and finds talking on voice-only telephone difficult. This means that whether it is with her broadband provider, utility provider or bank the ritual is the same. I explain that “No, I am not the account holder”, “yes, the account holder is here” (if she is) and “yes, I can put her on”, but she won’t be able to hear you. I then explain that yes, she can watch TV (with subtitles) and she can make video calls where she can lip read via WhatsApp, so she does want the package. I do understand of course that security and confidentiality are important but sometimes it is really tempting just to pretend that I am my mother.

Customer service is not easy

Working in a customer service role is hard. My Christmas holiday job in C&A in the Brent Cross shopping centre in London when I was a student is probably the hardest job I have ever done. I was expected to be fast but polite and to know all the answers to the questions customers asked even though it was my first day of a two-week job. It was also very busy. Looking back to my 19-year-old self, would I have known what to do if someone tried to come into the store with an assistance dog or tried to use the accessible toilet (was there an accessible toilet back then?) if they “didn’t look disabled”? If I’d been told that no dogs were allowed into the store, I might well have thought about stopping someone bringing in their assistance dog.

That’s why, while stories in the press in recent days about customers with sight loss being denied access to stores or people who “don’t look disabled” being stopped from using an accessible toilet are distressing, they are still unfortunately understandable.

What needs to change?

It’s all very well having a sign on a toilet that says “not all disabilities are visible” but if the people working in the shop don’t know what that means they may well think they are “protecting” disabled people by stopping others using the toilet. Similarly security guards, who may not even be employed by the food retailer, might think they are doing their job protecting the public by stopping someone from entering with an assistance animal.

What needs to change to stop disabled people having these horrible experiences in 2022? Greater visibility of disabled people everywhere would help – on our TV screens, in advertising and in our cultural and political life. And of course, more disabled people working in those roles and in training customer service staff so that they their lived experiences bring empathy and understanding to customer service roles.

On 29 June 2022, at Business Disability Forum’s Annual Conference we’ll debate and discuss all this and more. Join us at the “Are you being served? Welcoming disabled consumers” conference (sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group), in person (by invitation) and online to hear the findings of our “What disabled consumers choose to buy and why” research and hear from organisations ranging from Premier Inn Hotels to Sainsbury’s and Lloyds Banking Group are doing to improve the experiences of disabled consumers.

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