Accessibility Barriers to Mental Health Services for Clients with Disabilities

Published July 31, 2022

Accessing mental health care is challenging for many reasons, many of which are largely related to systemic poverty and discrimination. People with disabilities contend with these barriers while also facing intersectional-related challenges. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), communication, transportation, and stigma are some of the most notable. But there are more, including employment, education, and discrimination, and many are put in place by the organizations whose purpose is to remove them. Those working in the mental health field must understand the roadblocks so necessary steps can be taken to make the process as accessible as possible.

Websites are the first point of contact for clients but often fall short on accessibility

Barriers to website accessibility are numerous, but there are potential barriers that mental health professionals should always be mindful of when designing their online spaces.

Cluttered design

Webpages crammed with images and massive blocks of text can make it difficult for clients with disabilities to find what they need. Too much content also makes it difficult for those who haven’t sought out mental health care before to figure out the necessary processes and next steps. The order of operations frequently becomes unclear when calls to action get buried. Breaking up your content with headings, white space, and meaningful link structures creates a more user-friendly resource.

Too many design elements

Animations and elaborate nesting menus may look sophisticated, but for clients with sensory or cognitive disabilities, these elements can make a site completely unusable. Clients using screen readers may not be able to navigate to important content or may be so overwhelmed by visual elements that they can’t focus on what is important. Artistic design should never take precedence over customer access.

Phone calls can create multiple communication barriers without proper staff education

Connecting with a human being sometimes makes the process of acquiring services easier, but when the phone is the only contact method for an agency, it can be an even greater impediment for people with disabilities. The consequences of mistakes are greater, and the opportunities for client alienation are higher because live contact makes accessibility failures more interactive and personal.

Lack of training on Relay services

Deaf or Hard of Hearing clients often use relay services to make and receive calls with hearing persons. An operator acts as a third party and interprets the call for the participants. If staff are not educated about this service and don’t know how to instigate or behave on Relay calls, communication with clients who are Deaf becomes limited at best. Organizations need to be trained on assistive technology and telecommunications services to ensure they are not creating barriers for clients.

Mishandling of verbal communication

Many disabilities make it difficult for people to communicate verbally, which makes phone calls anxiety-inducing experiences. Many clients with disabilities have been hung up on because they couldn’t communicate clearly or because speech became difficult at the moment. For clients putting themselves in the vulnerable position of seeking mental health services, this active disregard for their needs is often traumatic, and it damages trust in the agency before treatment even starts.

Office visits present logistical barriers and have a high cost for mental health

When your clients are invested, both physically and emotionally in their visit to your facility, failure to provide proper accommodations can cause irreparable damage to the relationship between them and the organization. Ensure you have worked closely with your facility managers and ADA Coordinator to provide an accessible space for their visit and have the required reasonable accommodations policies established.

Information overload excludes clients

For customers with disabilities, receiving a flood of verbal input can often be stressful. Consumers with disabilities are better than most at solving problems, but as is true for customers without disabilities, the information provided should be presented in a way that is understandable – avoid overloading customers with more information than is necessary. As Albert Einstein famously said, “if you cannot explain something simply enough, it is because you do not understand it yourself.”

Also, consider how you provide information. Instead of limiting information about your programs and services to promotional media materials, or social media posts, consider alternative formats to ensure effective communication – for example, Braille or rich text (without graphics). Keep in mind, if your forms and intake processes are not accessible, you may also be asking your customers to communicate sensitive information in a way that they may be uncomfortable with, which may also be illegal – customers should never have to communicate sensitive information verbally in front of an audience.

Barriers to communication

Keep in mind that organizations that do business in places of public accommodation, which include facilities, telecommunications, and websites, are required to provide effective communication, which may include ASL, Accessible Communication devices (AC), and more. If staff or clinicians aren’t trained in these methods, the customer has no way of interacting with staff in the office. These barriers are often difficult to overcome at the moment and become impediments to care if not integrated into official policy.

Inaccessible communication alienates the client and creates an unsafe therapeutic setting. Making it the client’s responsibility to provide all their own accommodations can make them feel like a burden, which is a stigma people with disabilities must fight against every day. They should not have to do that in the office of their mental health provider –  organizations should ensure they have established vendor relationships or policies in place for providing effective communication so that staff is not forced to “wing it” on the spot, which will no doubt more often than not lead to ineffective communication.


In fairness, there is no abundance of disability sensitivity training, it is something that must be sought out, but it is critical that clinicians and other mental health professionals complete this training so they create accessible spaces for disabled clients. There are so many systematic barriers to mental health services already, it is essential that all possible barriers are removed to provide the care that all clients deserve.

Learn more

Our mission is to create objective and trustworthy information and resources to become a catalyst for equal access to the physical and digital worlds. To support the efforts of our colleagues working to improve accessibility and communication, is excited to announce a limited-time special offer for our Accessible Customer Service for Virtual Customer Service Teams certification course.

The Accessible Customer Service for Virtual Customer Service Teams training course is specially crafted to help customer service representatives gain the specific knowledge and awareness they need to deliver inclusive service for customers with disabilities.

AccessibilityPlus 2022 is proud of our role in promoting digital accessibility and equal access for all while recognizing there is much work to be done. As we welcome a new year in 2022, we have opened registration for AccessibilityPlus 2022, which will feature events dedicated to promoting actionable solutions in implementing digital accessibility initiatives. Registration is limited. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus Event Calendar.

Registrations for our August event Add to Cart: Creating an Accessible e-Commerce Experience are now available at no cost for viewers for a limited time.