Avoid the Tradition of Disabilities Discrimination

Author Micah Solomon sheds light on how technology combined with thoughtfulness can go a long way.
July 18, 2012

A certain very famous clothing retailer has been in the news lately for refusing entry to the service dog of a loyal, blind customer. This kind of insensitivity is the timeless sort, the kind suffered by disabled customers since decades immemorial. Unfortunately these acts of discrimination against customers with disabilities continues to happen: Recently I arrived to give a keynote speech on what turned out to be the third floor of a well-known venue. As I didn't spot an elevator, I asked how audience members with disabilities were supposed to attend my speech. The venue's manager responded: "I guess we'd be stuck carrying them up the steps."

Barring a service dog from a retail establishment, or "forgetting" to install an elevator when you renovate your public venue, are straightforward offenses compared to the more subtle insults and insensitivities happening, especially in this time of rapid technological and connectivity change. Here, I will bring you up to date on the more subtle aggravations you may be causing to potentially fabulous customers—and what to do about it.

Why Businesspeople Should Care

People with disabilities constitute a large and growing segment of the population. Furthermore, the public whom you serve includes an even larger, and also growing, proportion of people who are children of, parents of, spouses of, siblings of, or simply fond of people with disabilities. Don’t assume that showing active kindness to this segment will go unrewarded or that callousness will go unnoticed.

People in our society with disabilities include those who use wheelchairs and many who don't. (The universal use of the wheelchair symbol to indicate disability may be responsible for this common misconception.) The spectrum includes visual disabilities of greater and lesser severity, chronic pain, lack of manual dexterity and other issues that are less visible yet affect our customers and their loved ones.

Disabilities and Technological Change

For people with disabilities, technology is a double-edged sword. In obvious ways, technology is a godsend. But when e-commerce and mobile technology advance at such stunning speeds without the consideration for how people with disabilities are using it, frustration ensues.

Be sensitive to this when providing customer care. Not all your customers can interact with your IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems). They may have hearing loss or vocal limitations to the point that it's not possible. Not everyone can see the graphics-intensive Website you're so proud of. It may be entirely unreadable by blind customers who depend on screen-reading technology. This is why it's so important that you follow good accessibility protocols in designing your Website. (If your Web designer says, "What's that?" or "That's not important" when you bring up accessibility, take your business elsewhere or partner your Web designer with an expert in this area.)

Mobile technology can be especially problematic, in part because of the miniaturization inherent in this field and in part because of rapid changes. The iPhone is one of the most encouraging examples packed with accessible technologies, including type you can zoom in on to compensate for moderate visual impairments, built-in TTY compatibility for the deaf (TTY, also known as TDD, is a two-ended system that allows someone with hearing or speech limitations to communicate on the phone using a keyboard), and the inclusion of Siri—the extraordinary voice-based personal assistant. [Disclosure: Nuance, and its acquired brand MacSpeech, where I've been a long-time investor, is involved in the current generation of speech-recognition technology.]

Apple excels at holding third-party vendors to accessibility standards if they want their software on the iPhone. Yet the fact remains that this largely accessible marvel of technology comes in a nearly flat device, almost entirely lacking in the traditional grasping points and tactile cues of a standard telephone and keypad, making it hard to handle or even hold for people with certain physical limitations.

Efforts to block spammers and hackers can also end up barring disabled customers, in this case those with visual impairments. Websites frequently require the input of a CAPTCHA (CAPTCHA is a laborious acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) to join a site or use its contact forms; but by doing so without an audio alternative or other non-visual substitute, it also blocks out customers who have sight impairments.

This is bad business, unethical and potentially illegal, by violating Section 508.2 (Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is the federal law requiring that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities—further defining "accessibility" as the ability to be used as effectively by those with disabilities as by those without.) Note, though, that many of the available audio alternatives to CAPTCHAs are incredibly difficult to use as well (try one out yourself and see), so be thoughtful in choosing and implementing these, too.

Help Disabled Customers Helps Everyone

Keep this in mind: Technology and processes that benefit people with disabilities often benefit the rest of us as well. For example, clearly labeled Website elements, "universal design" in buildings, such as those easy-to-use lever-style door "knobs" even the able-bodied appreciate when loaded down with groceries, and closed-captioning in video.

Netflix has run a highly publicized battle, initially refusing and then dragging its feet on the implementation of subtitles for its streamed videos. Captioning clearly benefits the fully deaf and the moderately hard of hearing, as well as fully-abled people in noisy environments and movie buffs who want to catch the intricacies of dialog. An overall win, one would think, but in its shortsighted opposition, Netflix has brought forces together against it, including cultural icons like Marlee Matlin, in a battle that makes little sense.

Wynn Some

I'm going to end here with a little technological silver lining: the use of technology by Wynn Resorts to assist the disabled. Recently when in Vegas, I saw a huge ceramic trash can at the front entrance of The Wynn hotel that seemed to be blocking the push switch for disabled access. However, on closer inspection, I saw that this switch was motion activated with an indication "Wave to open." Curious, I gave a little wave of my hand from eight feet away, and the technology worked like magic: no need to struggle to move the clearly unmovable trash can, no need to wonder if a clunky old mechanical push button was broken (as they often are), no need to exert the arm strength sometimes unreasonably asked of those in wheelchairs.

I'm not sure whether this technological courtesy is thanks to Steve Wynn's personal sensibilities concerning disabilities or is a sign of the over-all advanced thinking of his hotel development team, but either way I want to say: Nice going. Technology, combined with thoughtfulness, can go a long way.

What steps do you take to accommodate disabled customers?

By Micah Solomon, a customer service and marketing speaker, strategist, and author of the new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. Find Micah at micahsolomon.com

Photo credit: Thinkstock