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Purple Tuesday: A new perception of disability


Chris Jay, Managing Director of Bascule Disability Training, explains how developing staff awareness around disability promotes a customer experience that will ensure inclusivity.

7th Nov 2023

Over recent years, a vast number of companies have introduced strategies to embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion. However, evidence has shown that many of these strategies overlook the importance of disability, placing greater focus on race/ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and pushing disability down lower on the list of company priorities.

When you consider that people with disabilities are the largest minority group on the planet – representing nearly one in every four of your customers – it begs the question, why?

After all, the rewards for meeting the needs of this group are quite substantial, with an estimated spending power of around £274 billion per year in the UK alone. Furthermore, people with other protected characteristics can join this group at any time, with 2% of the working-age population acquiring a disability every year.

Of course, it goes without saying that appealing to this market and successfully providing an accessible service involves significant change.

It requires alterations to customer-based environments such as retail outlets; it demands consideration around things like web design, technology, and accessible materials; but most of all, it requires staff to have a good awareness of disability. Without that, all other efforts are futile.

Staff awareness through training

Gaining a strong awareness of disability through a programme of awareness training is the cornerstone of inclusivity. Only when staff have developed a good level of awareness and understanding of disability will their confidence improve, barriers drop, and they will be more capable of communicating.

They will also have a stronger understanding of etiquette, behaviour and use of appropriate language. In short, they will naturally gain a more inclusive mindset, which is the building block for accessible CX.

Without staff awareness of disability, all of your other investments and efforts to be inclusive will fall flat.

Without staff awareness of disability, all of your other investments and efforts to be inclusive will fall flat. I once came across a good example of this when visiting a major retail brand to offer them a consultation. They had several UK-wide retail outlets, all with accessible features, and were interested in finding out why customers with disabilities weren’t using their branches.

When visiting an outlet, I quickly learnt that the managers had decided to use the accessible changing rooms as a temporary stock area, meaning people with disabilities weren’t able to try on clothes.

It then became quite clear, that despite the accessible building design, the business had failed to focus on the most important element of all – its staff. A failure here will lead to a number of difficulties on your pathway to becoming an inclusive brand.

Awkward interactions

Overlooking training for customer-facing staff can result in many issues around providing a service for people with disabilities. One common problem is difficult and uncomfortable interactions between staff and customers.

Now, you may think that your customer service team are a friendly, affable, and well-mannered group – and they probably are. However, you may also be surprised to learn that two-thirds of the British public (67%) admit to feeling ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’ when talking to people with disabilities. You can imagine how that could potentially impact interactions, and more worryingly, how that experience is for people with disabilities.

Two-thirds of the British public admit to feeling ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’ when talking to people with disabilities.

Developing awareness will allow your customer-facing team to gain a true understanding of the challenges people with all disabilities face, allowing them to develop stronger levels of empathy, understanding and patience. This will reduce any awkwardness they would have otherwise felt and consequently increase the quality of customer experience.

Avoiding assumptions: Training for people with hidden disabilities

We all know that assumptions are dangerous things to make. Jumping to conclusions about whether or not someone has a disability can cause offence and should always be avoided, especially when you consider that it’s estimated that 70-80% of all disabilities are invisible.

Staff should be trained to be mindful and best prepared should it become known that a customer needs additional support. Treating people with dignity and respect is always the best starting point.

Being polite and sensitive around offering extra assistance and treading carefully around questions regarding additional requirements will provide the best foundation for supporting a customer who may have a disability.

Sunflower lanyards are handy indicators that someone could require additional support, but remember, disability comes in many forms, and everyone is an individual, so some people may not wish to reveal their impairment at all. 

Most importantly, if staff have experienced disability awareness training, they will already have a number of solutions for additional requirements, and they will therefore be able to offer support with subtlety and decorum, allowing your customer service to be appreciated by many.

Who should be trained?

To become truly inclusive, awareness training should really be rolled out across all levels of seniority, for every team across the company.

For the sake of improving CX, a good foundation of training should be given to all staff who interact in any way with customers. This will include staff in call centres, those managing social media accounts or online chat functions, as well as frontline staff in retail outlets and reception desks. Any organisation is only as good as its weakest link.

The training should ideally be conducted by a user-led facilitator (meaning the trainer has lived experience of disability themselves). This will empower your customer-facing staff with a stronger sense of empathy, knowledge and understanding of disability.

To enhance your CX, disability training should be given to all staff who interact in any way with customers.

They will then begin to better understand the needs of people with disabilities, which will also include colleagues, as well as customers. They will learn how to approach people, use the appropriate language required, communicate effectively and will generally gain a more thorough, empathetic understanding of what disability really is.

In doing so, they will have a place in their minds for customers with needs and won’t make decisions such as choosing to use the disabled changing room as a storage area.

Improving customer service in general

Once a company becomes recognised for its commitment to providing a service that supports people with disabilities, word will spread. People with disabilities tend to embrace companies that they know are dedicated to their needs and will reward them with loyalty.

You will gain the attention of new potential employees, develop new positive PR opportunities, and even improve internally, as the people who work for you will feel comfortable in disclosing their own disabilities.

Furthermore, disability awareness training will generally enhance the CX for all. Good training programmes will encourage staff to be more empathetic; pay closer attention to detail; be understanding, respectful and considerate; avoid stereotypes; and support people who may need extra help – all whilst sharpening their etiquette and manners and enhancing the core qualities for any customer-facing staff member.

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