Barriers to Accessibility: Customer Service

Published November 22, 2021

Josh Basile has a number of small accommodations he regularly asks for from customer service representatives. He is a lawyer with a disability who works as a community relations manager with AccessiBe, a company focused on making the web more accessible through digital tools.

“The way I type is with my voice. So, when I'm on a call, I can't type. So, a lot of times, I'll ask the customer service representative, ‘Can you please help me take notes of what we're discussing so I can have this later on, and could you email it to me when we're done?' That's a reasonable accommodation I ask for all the time and some people are like, ‘Nope, can't do it.’”

Why make customer service accessible?

Oftentimes, customer service staff are the first employees a disabled customer might interact with. According to U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 2.9 million customer service jobs in the country in 2020. Basile calls them industry’s “natural problem solvers,” but denials of reasonable accommodations can leave the 26% of Americans who have a disability with increased barriers to participation. Aside from the human rights issues that denying access brings forward, companies that aren’t training their employees to support disabled customers are also losing out on a huge chunk of change. Recent reports by the Federal Office of Disability Employment Policy − citing the National Organization on Disability − put the spending power of disabled people at north of $200 billion in discretionary funds.

Ontario Canada’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), modeled after the US’ own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has a customer service standard that must be met in order for organizations that provide services to the public to be in compliance. The government site dedicated to the act has its own customer service guide and there are many resources across the web for employers to consult when looking at accessibility in customer service training. One of the issues facing disabled employees is that their disability puts them at higher risk of being rated poorly by customers simply because of their disability, according to a 2020 study published by Cornell Hospitality Quarterly. In the words of the researchers:

The results not only show that customers evaluate hospitality employees with disabilities lower than employees without disabilities, they also provide insight to why this occurs. The results showed that service employees with either disability were rated lower on competence than the service employees without disabilities. Moreover, perceived competence mediated the effect of employee disability on the three customer service evaluation factors. These findings are aligned with research that shows the most common stereotype related to disabilities is that employees with disabilities are less competent than those without disabilities.”

Despite the issues at play in the sector, Basile echoes many in the community who believe that one of the keys to customer service representatives making their process accessible is to have positions filled by disabled workers.

“If you have a wide variety of customer service representatives, you're going to have better conversations, and the ability to better serve many, many different types of people [...] it hasn't happened too often in my lifetime but getting a customer service representative and you share that you have a disability and, guess what, they have a disability too. It's like, what just happened? This is awesome.”

AccessibilityPlus 2022 is proud of our role in promoting accessibility and equal access 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 monthly events dedicated to promoting actionable solutions in implementing accessibility initiatives. Registration is limited. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus Event Calendar.

Registration for our second annual event, Customer Service Training Improves the Customer Experience and Your Bottom-Line, is now available at no cost for viewers for a limited time.