Do firms provide adequate services for people with disabilities?
Although legally required to provide effective communication, some companies still make it astonishingly difficult for vulnerable customers to contact them, writes John Cradden
Being able to contact a customer service department in a service provider, online or over the phone, is something most of us take for granted.
But if you have a disability that prevents you from communicating effectively with a State agency, a utility company or a financial institution, providers have legal obligations to ensure that you can.
All public bodies are obliged to do so under the Disability Act, while the Equal Status Act says commercial firms cannot discriminate against customers with disabilities.
There have been efforts to encourage the use of 'universal design' principles, which is about designing things so that they can be used by everyone regardless of age, size, ability or disability. The National Standards Authority of Ireland produced guidance for energy utilities in 2012 on how they can improve customer engagement through universal design.
For financial institutions like banks or insurance firms, the Central Bank's Consumer Protection Code says they must provide 'vulnerable customers' with any "reasonable arrangements and/or assistance" to help them in their dealings with a company.
According to the code, a vulnerable customer can be someone who has the capacity to make their own decisions but might need assistance to communicate, which would include deaf or hard of hearing people and those with speech difficulties.
It's not ideal to have to ask a family member, friend or colleague to have to ring on your behalf, not to mention the invasion of privacy if you have to reveal to them what's in your bank account.
Last week, Rabodirect became the first bank in Ireland to subscribe to the IRIS (Irish Relay Interpreting Service). IRIS provides a live video link to an Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreter using a video chat programme like Skype.
The IRIS interpreter joins a meeting between a service provider and the deaf customer by video link and translates between ISL and spoken English.
Although around 250,000 people in Ireland have hearing loss to some degree, the service is aimed at the estimated 5,000 deaf people who are users of ISL.
According to IRIS manager John Stewart, Rabodirect realised its obligation under the Consumer Protection Code to ensure that deaf customers who use ISL could interact easily with its customer service staff, particularly as they are an online-only bank with no branches.
Insurance broker 123.ie has also just signed up to IRIS as a telephone relay service. "This means the deaf person can Skype into IRIS from their home or work, or call in to our offices, and the IRIS interpreter will relay the conversation by phone," says Stewart.
Stewart says IRIS would generally prefer if a service provider would let the deaf person communicate directly with the company via a video link (and joined by the IRIS interpreter) as they would with Rabodirect, but at least with a telephone relay service a deaf person can ring up 123.ie and get a quote.
One of the difficulties raised by the growth of online and phone banking is the number of specific security steps a company has to take in verifying a customer's identity.
According to Stewart, what often ends up happening is that if a deaf customer wants to ring up another insurance company using an interpreter, it will send them a consent form that they have to sign and return saying that they give that authority on their account. "That's an absolutely shocking obligation that the service provider is putting on the deaf person," says Stewart.
When a company signs up to IRIS, they will process a range of issues in relation to consent and non-disclosure, thereby removing the need for this spurious consent form. But they also become aware of what they need to do to make business simpler for their deaf customers.
"They become aware that the sign language interpreter is not acting on behalf of the deaf person, just as they are not acting on behalf of the service provider. Their job is to interpret the discussion between the firm and the customer; they don't change anything, they don't add anything, they don't make any decisions for them."
The service is free to deaf users, and while capacity is at nearly 100pc, there is considerable demand for more. IRIS is 90pc funded by the Citizens Information Board with less than 10pc from service providers, but the aim is that it will have a mixture of private and public sponsorship as it expands.
Although the service has been running since 2014, it has struggled to get the banks on board, while the Central Bank seems to be doing little to ensure that financial firms are paying more than "lip service" to customers with disabilities, adds Stewart.
A Central Bank spokesman said that while no "specific themed inspections" have been made to see if firms are complying with the code's provisions on vulnerable customers, it has recently urged them to consider their needs when any changes are made that affect the way their services are delivered.