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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Woodward

Video & Transcript: 10 Tips for Providing Great Service to Customers with Disabilities

Hi, I'm Stephanie Woodward with Disability Details, talking to you about disability rights, access, and life. Today we're talking about tips for providing great service for customers with disabilities. The last US census showed us that at least one in five Americans is a person with a disability and the CDC indicates that now at least one in four Americans as a person with a disability, but people are still uncomfortable around people with disabilities and it may be because they're unsure of what to say or what to do and what is or is not appropriate. A lot of people are well-meaning but can still make mistakes, so here are 10 tips on how you can provide great service to customers with disabilities.

1. Treat guests with disabilities like you would treat any other customer. If you greet your customers by saying hello and looking them in the eye, then you should do that with your customers with disabilities. If you use your normal tone of voice to talk with customers without disabilities then you should not change your tone of voice to be a baby voice or a patronizing voice when talking with customers with disabilities. If you would usually treat your customers by referring to them by their title whether it's mister, Ms, doctor, or some other title, then you should do the same with customers with disabilities. As a general rule treating customers with disabilities the same way you would treat customers without disabilities is a great starting point, but remember if a customer with a disability requests a modification or accommodation, don't be offended that's not a complaint they're just seeking the access that they need in order to get the services appropriate for them.

2. Be aware of your customers' needs for access. If your business has a physical space such as a restaurant, a hotel, a movie theater, or anything like that, be aware of the physical space that you have and ensure that it is accessible. Look at the paths throughout your area to ensure that a wheelchair user or someone with a mobility device would be able to navigate the space without running into any obstacles. Cleaning supplies are often big offenders for blocking accessible paths and racks are often big offenders for staying in the accessible changing rooms in stores. Also be aware of your customers needs for access on your website. Check to see if your website is accessible. You can hire disabled consultants who specialize in this area to check your website and make recommendations for improvements to ensure your website is accessible. There are also many tools online where you can run your website through a checker to see if your website is accessible or what improvements need to be made. Another easy thing to think about is if you have TVs in your establishment. Whether you have screens available in your reception area, in your lobby, or even in a dining area, if you're playing something on a screen turn on the captions. Captions not only help individuals in the Deaf Community but they can help a lot of other people who may not understand what's happening on the television but would be able to understand if the captions are on. 3. Be aware of different access needs and different accommodations. Two people with the same disability could need very different accommodations. For example, one Deaf person may need an interpreter to understand a complex interaction, however, a deaf person who become deaf later in life may not understand American Sign Language and may need captioning in order to understand an in-depth interaction. Similarly, a blind person in your restaurant may appreciate a Braille menu but not all blind people can read Braille, so another blind person may request that your staff read the menu to them. Be aware that each person has different needs and be open to providing different accommodations based on each individual's needs.

4. Respect guests with disabilities by talking directly to us. I can't tell you anything that I find more annoying than when individuals providing customer service refuse to talk to me because I am a person with a disability. For example I often travel alone and I often travel by airplane. Because I'm a wheelchair user the agent at the gate needs to know if I need an aisle chair or any other assistance to get on the plane. 90% of the time the agent will refuse to ask me directly if I need assistance but will instead try to ask anybody near me if I need assistance. However, because I travel alone nobody near me knows if I need assistance but the agent assumes - wrongly - that because I'm disabled I must be traveling with somebody and they will go to great lengths to find that somebody that I'm traveling with to find out if I need help rather than just talk to me directly. This also happens at restaurants a lot where individuals who are taking our orders will ask a person who presents as non-disabled who is with us what we'll be having. You should ask the disabled person directly what they'll be having and if they need assistance they can ask the person who is with them to assist but it is not up to you to decide that a customer with a disability cannot speak for themselves. And if you're dealing with a customer who has a speech disability, don't be afraid to ask the person to repeat themselves if you don't understand them. Many people with speech disabilities are happy to repeat themselves over and over again in order for you to understand what they're saying and they would rather you ask them to repeat themselves in order to ensure that they've been fully understood than for you to assume that you know what they've said when you really don't. It's okay to ask someone to repeat themselves.

5. Respect the different equipment the customers with disabilities use many people with disabilities use different equipment to help them and we often view this equipment as part of ourselves. First and foremost, you should never touch a disabled person's equipment without their permission and you should never take it from them without their permission and without informing them of exactly where this equipment is going. So, for example, if a person uses a mobility device such as a wheelchair or a scooter, perhaps they use a cane or walker to assist them with mobility, and they come to a restaurant and they choose to use a seat that you provide they can choose to keep their own mobility device with them or you can offer to place it somewhere else for them for safekeeping during the time that they're seated. If they choose to allow you to take their device it is really important that you treat it with care and that you tell them exactly where their device will be kept.

6. Be sure to understand relay systems if you are answering a phone. Deaf people and people with communication disabilities can use TTY or video relay systems in order to place calls. These systems allow a person to either type or sign a message to another individual who then speaks that message into the phone to you. When you respond, that person then either signs or types a message back to the original caller. These calls can take longer because there is a third party that is relaying the message between you and the original caller. Many times customer service representatives have hung up on individuals calling through relay services because they did not understand the relay service and they thought it was a prank call or they just simply felt it was taking too long.

7. Be conscious that your pricing is not inadvertently discriminatory. Generally businesses cannot charge more for access. For example, hotels cannot charge an individual more if the individual needs an accessible hotel room. Similarly, if you offer happy hour pricing at your bar but your bar is in an older building in a sunken area that is not wheelchair accessible and you don't offer those same prices in the dining area but a wheelchair user cannot get to your bar because it is physically inaccessible, then you must offer those happy hour prices to a person with a physical disability in an accessible part of your restaurant.

8. Providing requested assistance can make a big difference. Let's just start by talking about straws. Straws have been a big controversy over the past year and a half or so and everyone is talking about the harms of plastic straws. However, plastic straws are critical for so many people with disabilities who are unable to drink liquids without plastic straws. Many people cannot use metal straws because they're a choking hazard and because they cannot allow for drinking hot liquids. This is the same for glass straws. Compostable straws can break down, paper straws can fizzle out easily, so for many people with disabilities single-use plastic straws are the only option. If your establishment has switched over to not using straws or to offering different types of straws be sure to have a few plastic straws behind the counter to ensure that if a disabled person comes and requests it because they need that straw in order to drink the liquids that you serve then you'll be able to provide that access to them. Other smaller accommodation requests that can make a big difference: if you work at a restaurant a person may request that you cut up the food for them before you serve it. That will make a big difference in whether or not they're able to enjoy their meal. A person may request that you provide them their food or beverage on a different plate or in a different sized cup and it can be all the difference of whether or not they'll be able to enjoy what they order. For example, my fiancee may spill a lot because he has to push his wheelchair with his hands while also trying to figure out how to hold a hot coffee. So he can often ask for a medium coffee to be put in an extra large cup that way if the coffee moves around in the cup while he's pushing it doesn't spill out on to him because there's extra room in the cup for the liquid to move around. This little request makes a big difference to ensure that he doesn't burn himself.

9. Respect service animals. I've already made a video about service animals which I'll link to below, but disabled people use service animals for many different reasons. Remember that service dogs are working so please don't ask to pet them and please don't offer to feed them. Also remember that service dogs don't have to have any sort of "papers" so please don't ask to see any documentation to prove that a service dog is a service dog. If you want to know what the requirements of a service animal are and what you're allowed to ask please check that link below for the video about service animals.

And lastly, 10. Include us in your advertising and in your imagery. Do you want to know how to get my business represent disability in your business. Do you even know how many Frosted Flakes I bought after I saw the commercial with the little girl in a wheelchair at the skate park? I don't even play video games but I definitely asked my fiance if we could get an Xbox after I saw the commercial with the disabled kid and the adaptive controller. And I prefer the taste of Coca-Cola but ever since that hilarious Super Bowl commercial in 2008 with the Deaf people in it I am always buying Pepsi. When I went to my local theater and I saw a sign that said not only do they have sensory friendly days but they also created a family room that allows individuals who need just some quiet and alone time to go into it and still view the movie at the same time, I almost handed them my entire wallet. Like I said earlier: one in four Americans as a person with a disability. We're literally everywhere but representation of us isn't. So when businesses make the effort to include us in their advertising and cater to us as customers that are important we take note of that.

Remember that this quick list is just some tips on how to provide great customer service to people with disabilities. This isn't a complete list and my help doesn't end here. If you have questions on how to provide better customer service to people with disabilities you can email me at or head on over to to learn more if this video has been helpful for you please click that like button below and feel free to subscribe to this channel for more videos on disability rights, access, and life. I'll see you next time.

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