Robot on customer service call with accessibility symbol in the thought bubble

Customer Service for People with Disabilities

Customers with disabilities are simply: customers. They may have different ways of communicating with you or performing tasks, various tools to assist them, and certain adjustments or accommodations to help them do things with greater ease. You may also do things a little bit differently when interacting with customers with disabilities. But the heart of the interaction is unchanged: customers come to you for services, and your job is to help them.

In this blog post, I’m going to discuss some etiquette principles and language guidelines for providing customer service for people with disabilities, how to have a successful first interaction with customers, as well as identify some strategies for providing equal access and ensuring effective communication. All these topics will ensure your customer service team is prepared to offer effective support for customers with disabilities.

Etiquette Principles and Language Guidelines for People With Disabilities

Etiquette relies on common sense and general principles that you would apply when interacting with all customers. Here are five principles that should set the stage for your interactions:

  1. Respect
  2. Displaying a welcoming attitude
  3. Courtesy
  4. Patience
  5. A desire to help

Respect

Let’s say that you have a customer who is deaf walk into your office and they have a sign-language interpreter with them. Now, often people will speak directly to the interpreter while ignoring the deaf person because it might seem intuitive to them. Meaning that they might think, “well, why would I direct my words to the deaf person directly if they can’t hear me? Doesn’t it make more sense to speak to the interpreter?” The answer is no.

Even though a deaf person can’t hear what you’re saying, they may have the lip-reading ability, and you also communicate volumes with your body language. In this case, the respectful thing to do is to speak directly to them. If you speak to the interpreter and ignore the deaf person, it’s quite disrespectful. Imagine what it would feel like if someone was talking about you as if you weren’t even there.

Another common mistake is to automatically start speaking very slowly and loudly to all people with disabilities as if talking to a child. This might be a bit subtle or it might be very pronounced, but this is considered quite rude, and unfortunately, it’s something that people with disabilities encounter often. The respectful thing to do is to talk to adults like adults. The one exception to this case is when someone asks you to speak up or speak more slowly, then, of course, it’s appropriate to do so.

Displaying a Welcoming Attitude

One of the essential components of good customer service is making people feel welcome. For example, let’s say that you encounter a person who is in a wheelchair. Oftentimes, people will not even make eye contact with a person using a wheelchair because they think, “well, is it rude? Is this considered staring? Maybe I better just look away.”

Now, this is definitely much more likely to happen outside of a customer service relationship, such as on the street. However, this interaction can happen in business as well, and in this situation, the right thing to do is to make eye contact, smile, and just greet the person as you would any customer.

Courtesy

Let’s say that you’re a museum guide and you are giving a tour. You notice that a customer using a mobility device is having a hard time keeping up with the pace. The right thing to do is to slow the pace down. Again, you’ll notice that this is really just about being observant and considerate of other people. The situation happens to be about serving customers with disabilities, but the general principles about how to treat people well are really the same.

Patience

When you’re providing customer service to people with disabilities, the interactions can sometimes take more time, and that’s okay. For example, you might have someone who has a speech disability or a traumatic head injury, and it might take them longer to finish sentences.

Sometimes, there may be an impulse to finish a person’s sentence for them. It’s hard to watch someone struggle to find the words when we can just quickly help them out, but it’s actually not the right thing to do in this context. Just give people enough time to communicate, and make them feel worthy of your time by being patient.

A Desire to Help

A strong desire to help is at the heart of all customer service interactions. Here’s a key thing to keep in mind: not all customers with disabilities will need or want help. For example, you might notice that someone who is using a mobility device is taking longer to open a door. Now, many of us would immediately jump and open the door.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but in this case, the appropriate thing to do is to ask. You can just smile and say, “Hey, can I get the door for you?” The reason for that is that many people with disabilities prefer to do things independently, even if it takes them longer. We must be aware of that and respect people’s choices. This is just a good example of the value of not making assumptions.

Tips for Interacting with Customers with Disabilities

Let’s take a look at some tips for interacting with customers with different types of disabilities.

Tips for Interacting With Customers with Physical Disabilities

When you’re interacting with people with physical disabilities, don’t touch their device without permission. For example, people in wheelchairs feel frustrated when others sometimes unconsciously lean on their wheelchair– it’s very disrespectful to do that.

Maybe you notice that someone is struggling to get over a threshold, and the impulse might be to automatically push their wheelchair over it just to be helpful. Again, that isn’t the right thing to do. Always ask for permission first.

Eye contact is very important. Of course, staring is not good, but avoiding eye contact altogether is bad as well, as I mentioned before. Relax and focus on the conversation and what the person is saying, and make a normal amount of eye contact. Finally, if there are chairs around, have a seat so you’re at the same eye level and can speak more easily.

Tips for Interacting with Customers Who are Blind or Have Low Vision

Verbally identify yourself when approaching a customer who is blind or has low vision. Another thing you should do is to speak normally. One big pitfall is to automatically start speaking loudly and slowly to people with any type of disability. People may not even realize they’re doing it, and it’s a patronizing thing to do. If a person is blind, and they are not hard of hearing, they can hear just fine with a normal volume of speaking. 

Let service animals do their work without any distractions. A friend I know who has a service dog first taught me that even maintaining eye contact with a service animal can be distracting. In an office environment, this may not be a life-or-death situation. However, if a service animal is helping their owner across the street and someone distracts them, then obviously this can have some very dangerous consequences.

Tips for Interacting With Customers Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

When interacting with a customer who is deaf or hard of hearing, face the person, and don’t cover your mouth while speaking. Some people have the lip-reading ability, and so this allows them to read your lips without them struggling to see you.

Make sure that you speak directly to the person who is deaf or hard of hearing rather than an interpreter if there’s one present.

Lastly, it’s critical to never brush off a person by saying, “never mind,” or, “it’s not important.” Maybe you try saying something two or three times, and they don’t understand you. Rather than just waving your hand and saying, “it’s okay, never mind,” even if you mean it kindly, it’s often interpreted as insulting, so if repeating doesn’t work, then try rephrasing what you’re saying or even just writing it down.

Tips for Interacting With Customers Who Have A Cognitive Disability

When interacting with a person with a cognitive disability, it’s important to speak normally. I know I’m really driving this point home, but it’s very important. Sometimes people will speak like they’re talking to a child, especially towards someone with a cognitive disability. Of course, you can modify your speech and slow down if needed. However, don’t do this automatically when you first interact with a person.

If someone says something unclearly, and you have no idea what they just said, you might feel like it’s rude to ask them to repeat what they said, but it really isn’t. Don’t pretend to understand someone, rather, just ask them to repeat or say what you think they said and ask them if you heard correctly. Finally, keep in mind that disabilities in this category can be very diverse, and so we definitely can’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach to customer service. Rather than making assumptions, the best thing you can do is simply to ask someone how you can assist them if they do need your help.

Effective Communication for Customers with Disabilities

Language is a critical element in how our thoughts and our opinions are shaped. Historically, language related to disabilities has been quite negative and very cruel. Words like “invalid,” “deformed,” “lunatic,” and “vegetable” were once used, but they’re not used today as they have been in past decades or past centuries. We have really come a long way from using these belittling words like “cripple” or “retarded,” to using much more respectful language such as wheelchair-user or person with a cognitive disability.

Now, in terms of language related to disability, many or even most adults already know which words are blatantly offensive and should never be used, such as the ones I just mentioned. In addition to this, there are more subtle ways to accidentally offend someone with a disability without meaning to. For example, a phrase that we still hear is “vision impairment,” or a person “suffers hearing loss,” or maybe this person is “wheelchair-bound.” All three of these examples convey a sense of negativity around having a disability.

In customer service, we want to make people feel respected and empowered. A good principle to keep in mind is people-first language. The idea is to place emphasis on someone as a person first, and then, if it’s relevant to a given situation, mention the disability.

Now, this can have two interpretations. The first is literally using the word person first, and then following that with words to describe the disability. For instance, saying “person who is blind” rather than “blind person,” but that doesn’t have to be true all the time. It isn’t rude to say blind person or deaf person if it has a lot to do with your overall intent. The goal should be to emphasize someone as a person first in all aspects of the conversation, even if you don’t literally use people-first language 100% of the time. Keep in mind that people-first language is just one perspective and there are definitely others.

For example, some members of the disability community prefer identity-first language. For instance, “autistic person,” “deaf person,” or “blind person,” rather than a “person with autism” and so on. The reason is that people might identify strongly with their disability being a big part of who they are and they prefer to use that identifier first when speaking about themselves or other members in the community.

But here’s the thing: don’t worry excessively, or panic, or think, “oh no, I have to remember all these rules and guidelines!” That’s not the point at all. Instead, use broad guiding principles such as respect and treating people with dignity. Use neutral words such as “has hearing loss” rather than negative ones such as “suffers hearing loss,” and be willing to learn someone’s personal language preferences, and you’ll be just fine.

I want to mention one more thing on the topic of language. Be careful with euphemisms, and what I mean by that is don’t use them. Most people with disabilities actually find them very offensive. For example, terms like “differently-abled,” “special needs,”  “handicapable,” or “challenged.” Don’t use these words because they are patronizing. Again, the key takeaway here is to use neutral words, not negative ones or euphemisms.

More Examples: Using Customer Personas

Let’s review some more specific examples: I’m going to discuss these examples around four personas of customers that you might encounter. First, we have Lisa, and she’s a customer who’s blind. Then we have Rashad, a customer who is deaf. Next, we have Daniel, a customer who uses a wheelchair. Finally, we have Antonio, and he is a customer who has a cognitive disability.

Lisa: a Customer Who is Blind

Lisa, a customer who is blind, being led to a sighted person while also using a cane Lisa walks up to your counter and she has her guide dog with her and is using a white cane. She says, “excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” Lisa relies on very explicit directions, not vague or general words. You wouldn’t want to say, “oh, just down there at the end of the hall.” You would want to say something like, “it’s straight down the hallway to your left, the third door down.”

Remember not to make assumptions about what a person does or doesn’t need. Now, Lisa may be perfectly fine with navigating independently or she may prefer your assistance. You could follow up with, “would you like any assistance in getting there?”

In this case, let’s say that she does accept your offer. You can go ahead and ask her how she would like to be guided. The standard way is that you fold your arm at the elbow, and the person holds onto your elbow gently and walks slightly behind you, just like the image above. Don’t be afraid to ask someone, “what is the best way to help?” if you don’t know. It’s okay not to have all the answers.

You’ll also want to ensure service animal access. Remember that service animals are allowed in most places where the public can go, even if there is a no-pet policy. They’re allowed in because they’re not considered pets. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures this, as well as many state and local laws. You can also offer information about the physical environment to Lisa, such as the layout of the room.

Remember, if you’re serving as a sighted guide, make sure that you don’t leave someone in the middle of the room and walk away because that’s very disorienting. You want to guide them to a seat and then have a look around and make sure that there’s a clear path of travel for Lisa. If there are any possible obstacles, you should alert her. This is something that’s good to plan in advance when you’re setting up furniture arrangements to make sure that customers can comfortably get around. This also includes people who are blind or have low vision and people who use mobility devices.

Rashad: a Customer Who is Deaf

Rashad: A customer who is deaf and using sign languageRashad walks up to the front desk where you’re working and he asks you a question, and you answer it. He doesn’t understand your response even after you repeat it, so what should you do? Well, you can ask him or jot down on a piece of paper, “what’s the best way for us to communicate?” If you don’t have a pen and paper handy, you can even just type it out on your smartphone and show him.

Sometimes people who are deaf or hard of hearing will actually carry their own pad and paper for just these kinds of situations. However, you should always be prepared. A little bit later Rashad is sitting away from you filling out some paperwork, and you need to get his attention. What’s the best way to do that? The goal here is to avoid startling people and never to touch people without permission unless it’s an emergency.

You could walk up to him so he can see you, you could wave to him, or you can even tap on the table gently next to him. Be sure that you speak normally and don’t exaggerate your lip movements. In fact, exaggerating your lip movements doesn’t help with lip-reading, it actually makes it harder. You’ll want to face Rashad when you’re speaking and keep your mouth uncovered. Many people assume that all people who are deaf or hard of hearing can lip read and speak sign language, but that is a myth. About 30% of the English language is understandable by lip-reading because so many words look the same when they’re spoken.

Daniel: a Customer Who Uses a Wheelchair

Daniel: A customer who uses a wheelchairDaniel comes into your office for an appointment and wants to check-in. One of the best things you can do before you have an interaction with Daniel is to ensure that there’s a clear path of travel that is wide enough for a wheelchair. Make sure that there’s a way for him to check-in comfortably, either having a lowered counter that is wheelchair-accessible or you can have a clipboard handy.

Make sure that there are accessible seating areas so a customer can comfortably park their wheelchair in this room. It’s also important to avoid making people have to reach excessively; the setup of the room should allow people as much independence as possible.

Antonio: a Customer Who Has a Cognitive Disability

Antonio: A customer who is autisticIt’s important to know that cognitive disabilities are often hidden, so you may never know that a person has this type of disability. Instead, you might learn this based on behavioral and communication cues. In this example, Antonio comes up to you, and he wants to learn more information about registering for a workshop. You let him know how he can do that, but you can tell that he’s having some difficulty with following all the steps. A good thing to do in this case is to break it up into smaller tasks.

For example, you can say, “to register, first I’ll need to see your ID. may I please see that?” and then so on with all the other steps. Another thing to be aware of is that sometimes– but definitely not all the time– cognitive disabilities are related to speech disabilities. It’s possible you’re having a difficult time understanding what Antonio is saying to you. It’s a bad idea to pretend to understand. It’s not rude to ask someone to repeat what they are saying. You could even say to him, “I think you said X, Y, Z. Is that right?”

Also, if it applies to a specific scenario, you can provide a completed example. For instance, you could say, “this is what a completed registration form looks like” and show Antonio an example. Keep in mind that people who have cognitive disabilities might sometimes feel frustrated if they feel like they’re hitting a roadblock within themselves, with you or with others, so just remember to be patient. It’s okay to allow these interactions to take more time and remember not to rush people. Good customer service means showing people that they are worthy of your time.

When it comes to customer service for people with disabilities, there are certain subtleties that can really make a difference in how you make a customer feel. Simply being aware of them, and maybe making slight alterations in how you do things, can really elevate the service that you offer and leave a great lasting impression on your customers.

Creating an Accessible Online Customer Service Experience: Chat Features

Online chat features are a great way to provide customer service. Unfortunately, most of those chat services are not accessible to blind or keyboard-only users. Screen Reader software and keyboard-only users need to be able to receive a notification that a chat is available, navigate to the chat feature and be able to chat, and exit the chat feature when the interaction is done. If your organization is procuring a chat feature, it’s important to have a VPAT or accessibility review in this process.

If you are answering questions, keep in mind that sometimes some users need more time to type up the responses, so don’t just assume that they’ve checked out. Ask them with prompts such as, “do you need more time?” or, “are you still there?”

Some companies may have the online chat for free but they may charge for a phone call. From a company perspective, it’s not intentional discrimination against people with disabilities, but it ends up being discriminatory in practice. It’s very important that if you do have a chat service that it is accessible, but also that if it isn’t accessible that other means of communication are free and available to use for people with disabilities.

In Summary

The tips laid out here can act as a primer for your customer service team to provide a great experience for customers with disabilities. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out Deque University’s full course on Customer Service for People with Disabilities.

As customer service moves more and more from in-person to a digital experience, it’s important to ensure that those channels of communication are accessible and that the same principles of communication and etiquette apply. Your customer service team is also the first point of contact for customers with disabilities to report issues related to accessibility. It’s important that those customers have a great interaction with your team and they are properly heard.

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