It’s not hard to be accommodating

Businesses need to be aware of accessibility issues

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It’s tough to believe so many years have gone by since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was signed in 1982.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/05/2017 (1951 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s tough to believe so many years have gone by since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was signed in 1982.

Section 15 of that groundbreaking document provides that, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Since then, much has been done to educate the public, individuals and employers alike on our “rights and responsibilities.”

As a result, negative social attitudes and misconceptions have been peeling away slowly. Thankfully, organizations also pay much more attention to policy development so that discrimination situations, hopefully, do not arise.

Employers also are recognizing that people with disabilities offer a largely untapped pool of candidates. This has led to many creative human resource initiatives intent on creating a diverse workforce that ensures full participation and equality and takes advantage of the abilities of all people. In doing so, our organizations slowly are removing barriers to employability by providing various means of accommodation and support.

Human resource policies are being adjusted to support a diverse workforce and prevent discrimination and harassment. Today, when we talk about our workforce, it is being recognized increasingly that diversity is simply the right thing to do, no questions asked.

On the other hand, while we have made progress with respect to diversity in the workplace and the removal of employability barriers, there is still much to do — especially in the area of customer accessibility. What does this mean?

First of all, no matter whether you are a not-for-profit organization, a public-service agency and/or a for-profit business, you need people wanting your service.

Customer service needs to be accessible to everyone, without regard to disability. Therefore, the word “accessibility” means access. Put another way, access means enabling an individual to acquire whatever your organization offers in a way that allows each person to maintain their independence and their dignity. To do otherwise may create a barrier to your service and therefore cause inadvertent discrimination.

For instance, think about your last shopping trip to a local retail clothing store. After trying on two to three garments, you purchased something and took it home. Perhaps you did notice the store had a “no-return” policy, but you didn’t feel this was of any consequence.

Let’s look at this sale scenario from another point of view. Think about a customer in a wheelchair. This customer is unable to try on any clothes because the fitting room doesn’t accommodate a wheelchair. This lack of access has now become a barrier. Should the “no-return” policy apply and/or could this customer be accommodated? The answer is, “Yes.” Would this accommodation cost a lot of money? The answer is, “No.”

Think about a patient who arrived at a walk-in clinic and was required to take a numbered ticket so that she could be called when it was her turn to be served.

Unfortunately, with her vision impairment, she misread the number on the ticket and then missed the number as it is flashed on the wall counter. One hour later the patient was still sitting patiently, waiting for service. Could accessibility have been improved? More than likely. Would an improvement to accessibility been costly? Probably not.

This is what accessible customer service is all about. Not only is customer accessibility the right thing to do, accessibility benefits everyone and in most cases the costs to ensure accessibility are not prohibitive. The challenge then is for all organizations and businesses to become aware of the potential accessibility barriers to service and to remove them so that you can serve people across the full range of disabilities.

Barriers include issues such as attitude and limiting of beliefs or stereotypes. It includes physical barriers such as steps to a building versus a ramp, and/or restrooms that are not wheelchair-accessible. Barriers also exist with communication as well as with operational and/or HR policies, practices and procedures that inadvertently discriminate against people with disabilities.

Just as the journey toward public awareness of discrimination has been slow in gaining momentum, the concept of accessibility will also take time. However, the Accessibility for Manitobans Act passed in 2013 certainly will help. John Wyndels, senior policy analyst for the Manitoba disabilities issues office, considers the act to be “transformational” as it provides for a long-term, systemic and proactive approach to helping organizations eliminate barriers to accessibility.

So, how can organizations go about meeting the new accessibility standards for customer service? Start by establishing an advisory committee to review policies and procedures and your method of communication to customers. Rewrite and/or develop new policies to support assisted devices, service animals and support persons for your customers.

Conduct a physical review of your facility and determine how to ensure it is barrier-free. Train employees on how to serve people who are disabled, and offer customer-service checklists to help them remove communication barriers. Provide customers with an opportunity for ongoing feedback on how to improve your barrier-free customer service experience.

Manitoba Hydro, one of the public-sector champions of customer accessibility, provides a good model and one that has proven to be cost-effective. Kim Lanyon, Hydro’s manager of recruitment and diversity, said Hydro’s advisory group helped to create an accessibility plan and its accompanying accessibility standards, a training program and implementation policies. The utility also created a website with resources and a “FAQ” document that addresses most questions.

The customer-access initiative also alerted Hydro to the need to track requests for accommodation — which, in turn, has led to several adaptations to its service.

For instance, Hydro now offers large-print invoices, and meter readers have been trained to take more time to ensure their customers are indeed home and available.

Finally, Lanyon’s team has created a set of checklists for various disabilities that provides advice and guidelines for their service workers. This not only helps customers but provides a greater sense of security for frontline employees in knowing they are doing a good job of personalizing unique customer needs.

Whereas private businesses of all types and sizes will need to comply with the new customer-service accessibility standards no later than November 2018, you can learn more about how to comply by attending the free panel discussion June 6 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Viscount Gort Hotel. Register at accessibilitymb.ca.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CMC, CCP, M.Ed, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also an author of eight books, a professional speaker, executive coach and workshop leader. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com and/or barbarabowes.com

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