I've spent a week cosplaying as a disabled user. And I hate it.
A couple of months ago, I attended a private talk given by a disabled colleague of mine. "Everyone should believe disabled people's stories about accessibility problems," she said. "But, given that people don't, here's what I want you to do. Spend one week pretending to be disabled. Pick a disability and try to interact with services as though you have that impairment. Build up some empathy."
So I did.
For a week, I pretended that I was in a wheelchair. I didn't go the full way and buy a cheap chair and try and commute in it. Instead, whenever I was invited to speak at an event, or go to a meeting, I asked if the venue was accessible. To my delight, all of them were. A couple of people told me they'd arrange ramps to the stage, or that they'd need to adjust a podium height if I wanted.
Except one. I turned up to find the talk had been moved to the 3rd floor of a building with no lift. I'd specifically asked the organisers if the room was wheelchair friendly. They'd had more people turn up than expected, so moved to a bigger room. At no point did the organisers contact me.
I turned up (without a chair) and briefly considered leaving. Instead I sent a sternly worded email.
The week left me feeling fairly hopeful. OK, it wasn't a full test - and there was a failure - but in my little bubble of society, people are (mostly) welcoming to wheelchair users.
Then it all went wrong.
The next week, I tried something different. Approximately 10% of people in the UK have a speech disorder. In the USA, approximately 7.5 million people have trouble using their voices.
So, I tried to spend a week without using the phone to contact companies. It was a fucking disaster.
I wanted to upgrade my Internet access to a faster speed. Virgin Media provide a web chat - and after a few hours of waiting (seriously!) I had this frustrating exchange (edited for clarity - typos left intact):
- John: If you wish to avail of this deal . I advise you to call our Customer Care Team.
- Terence: I can't use the phone due to my disability. Can I chat online to do it?
- John: To reach our customer care. You can just download the app and quickly chat with the team there;
- Terence: I've tried using the app - but no one answers. Please can you help me. I've been a customer for 6 years.
- John: We appreciate your loyalty Terence, but we are are only limited to regular upgrade transacations.
- Terence: So disabled customers can't upgrade via chat?
- John: For persons with diabilities, there are options at "Contact Us"
- Terence: I tried that - and it redirected me here. Is there anyone who can help?
- John: I'm so sorry ternce but transactiosn like this can only be arranged by calling Custome care team.
So I asked to cancel my account.
- Terence: If I want to cancel my account (without using the phone) what can I do?
- John: the only option though is by calling . Call 150 from your Virgin Media phone or mobile, or call 0345 454 1111 * from any other phone Monday to Friday, 8am until 9pm Saturday, 8am until 8pm and Sunday 8am until 6pm For our text relay service call us free on 18001 0800 052 2164 You can also contact us through a sign language interpreter. Open 7 days a week, 8am until midnight. *For call costs to our team from a Virgin Media home phone, visit our Call costs page. Calls from other networks and mobile may vary.
- Terence: This is discrimination. I don't know sign language and I don't have text relay. I can't use my voice. I want to contact someone to cancel my account.
- John: If the voice is the issue, i advise you ask someone to call in your behalf.
- Terence: I am perfectly capable of managing my affairs - and I don't want to give my password to someone else.
And so it went on. I spent hours chatting with different people, and with managers. None of them could help me with an upgrade, or with a cancellation.
Virgin accessibility police says:
2.1 We are committed to ensuring both vulnerable and disabled customers get fair and appropriate treatment.
2.2 To ensure we meet the needs of current and prospective customers, our sales and support teams are trained to identify and support the accessibility and vulnerability needs people may have.
As far as I can see, that's a load of bunkum. If you don't have a voice, you're locked out of Virgin's upgrade and cancellation routes.
I raised a complaint, and got back this fairly generic and dismissive response:
Please accept my apologies for this experience, , this is not the experience we want for our customers. We have fed your comments back to the relevant team, this will help us to highlight certain training needs and form coaching. There are areas where improvements can always be made, and as a customer-orientated organisation we are always endeavouring to improve both how we deal with customers and the range and quality of the services we offer.
No actual resolution. It made me feel like a burden for even asking for help. I can't go through the "normal" channels - I have to rely on the good graces of a complaints team. It was frustrating and demoralising.
The same thing happened with Thames Water. If you want to move your account, they ask you to fill in a form online. Hurrah! Until you get to one bit of it, where it tells you to ring a phone number.
Dear @thameswater, I'm trying to move house. Your website says the contact number is 0800 000 0000.
I assume that's placeholder text as the number is answered by the Prudential!
What number should I call?https://t.co/fT3DzPIy4M pic.twitter.com/AGQ2FqMyr0
— Terence Eden (@edent) July 28, 2019
I had a frustrating chat on Twitter with Thames Water. They admitted the phone number was wrong, and struggled to provide me with contact details.
I tried to use their complaints process, but that requires a 10 digit account number. But Thames have upgraded me to a 12 digit number - so their own form doesn't work!
So now I'm stuck in limbo. Waiting for someone to get back to me. I've told them not to call - but I bet you they try to ring me.
My bank had similar issues. UK banking is great for most online users. I was able to set up new payees, order a new card, cancel Direct Debit - all without using my voice. And then I tried to buy a house...
I needed to transfer a large sum of money in order to put a deposit down on my new place. It was larger than the standard transfer limit. And the only solution was to call them up.
They do have an online messaging service, but from experience it's slow to answer - and I needed to transfer the money immediately (the home buying process in England is dysfunctional). If I truly had no voice, I'd have lost the house I was trying to buy.
I appreciate the need for security. And for double-checking transactions. And all that good stuff. But I was trapped. So I caved in and called.
You should believe your disabled friends and colleagues when they tell you how crap the world can be.
You should also try empathy building exercises. Here are some examples, please add your own in the comments:
- Go a couple of weeks without using the phone. Which services are closed off to you?
- Tell people you need an accessible venue for your meetings. How do they respond?
- Turn off images in your browser. Is there enough alt-text for you to navigate the web?
- Switch on subtitles and mute your favourite shows. Do they even have subtitles? What do you miss?
- Hire or buy a wheelchair for a week. How easy is your office to navigate? (Please don't block the accessible loos though!)
- Buy a pair of arthritis simulating gloves. What does the world feel like with limited mobility?
But, most of all, record how it makes you feel. After a few fruitless hours pleading with my ISP, I was ready to kick something. Now imagine that every day.
Whether you work in tech or not - it is your duty to make sure that no one feels demoralised or rejected because of the systems you build.