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Communicating with Customers with Disabilities

Under the Customer Service Standard of the AODA, service providers’ accessibility policies must outline how providers will communicate with customers who have disabilities. Communicating with customers with disabilities involves knowing that people sometimes give, understand, and receive information in different ways. Providers can start by making any written or multi-media information available using accessible formats or communication supports. Examples of this information include:

  • Signs
  • Advertisements
  • Websites
  • Menus
  • Programs
  • Forms
  • Bills and receipts

In addition to giving all customers access to information, providers must also ensure that all customers have positive and productive interactions with staff. In cases where a provider cannot make information available through the format or support a customer needs, staff must work with the customer to find a solution.

Communicating with Customers with Disabilities

The Customer Service Standard states that staff must take customers’ disabilities into account when they communicate with them. Providers taking customers’ disabilities into account realize that customers with different disabilities may need to use certain communication methods and avoid others. For instance, if a customer enters with a white cane or guide dog, providers should know that this customer may not see which way they are pointing when they explain that something is “over there”. Instead, providers should use other communication strategies that take a visual disability into account. Providers can audibly tap items so that the customer can hear where they are, or verbally describe their location. Similarly, if a customer identifies as Deaf, providers should realize that this customer may not hear their speech, even if they speak more loudly. Better strategies include writing, or speaking naturally in a space where the customer can clearly see the provider.

Moreover, customers with the same disability may use different communication methods. For example, one customer with a speech disability may type their words into an alternative communication device while another customer may speak slowly in a quiet location. Customers will let providers know the best ways to communicate with them.

Customers with Invisible Disabilities

Providers may sometimes know that customers have disabilities before they serve them because the customers use assistive devices or service animals. In contrast, other customers’ disabilities are invisible. Customers with speech, learning, intellectual, mental health, or invisible physical disabilities may also need to communicate accessibly. For instance, a customer with a learning disability may need a service provider to read something aloud. Likewise, a customer with an intellectual disability may need a service provider to rephrase something using plain language. In other words, any customer may need accessible service.

Informing Customers about Accessible Features

Furthermore, providers should inform all customers about any assistive arrangements or devices on-site, such as:

  • Wheelchairs or other mobility aids
  • Assistive listening systems or other hearing devices
  • Sign language interpretation
  • Closed captioning or real-time captioning
  • Documents in Braille or large print
  • Video description
  • Teletypewriters
  • Computers with accessible features, such as:
    • Screen readers or magnifiers
    • Braille displays or embossers
    • Speech recognition software

Providers should be aware that some of these devices are useful for people with particular disabilities. For instance, someone with a hearing aid may find an assistive listening system helpful, while someone identifying as Deaf may prefer to know about Sign Language Interpretation. Customers with either disability may use captioning. Some customers with white canes may use Braille or video description, while others may use large print or magnifiers. Customers with visual impairments or learning disabilities may use screen readers.

In addition, some customers who do not look disabled may find one or more of these devices useful. For instance, a customer who can walk short distances but not long ones may sometimes benefit from a wheelchair. Therefore, communicating with customers with disabilities means that providers should let the public know whenever their organizations have assistive devices or accessible structural features, like ramps or automatic doors. Additionally, they should use multiple communication strategies, such as signs, web advertising, and in-person alerts. Since the disability population is growing, accessibility will attract more customers with disabilities and their loved ones.

General Communication Tips

Although customers use many different communication methods, there are some general best practices service providers should use to communicate with all customers. Providers should always look at and speak directly to a customer with a disability, rather than to that customer’s companion, support person, or interpreter, or to another customer nearby. Furthermore, providers should not assume that a customer needs help simply because the providers notice the customer’s disability. Instead, providers should approach the customer and say that they are willing to offer assistance in the same way they would greet any customer. The customer can then request assistance or explain the best way for the provider to help. Providers that are communicating with customers with disabilities can offer high-quality, courteous service to all customers.