Disabled people still suffer at hands of phone firms

Major ISPs, fixed line phone and mobile companies in the UK are still failing to fully and correctly support customers with disabilities Ofcom has said.

The watchdog said that the deaf, blind or cognitively impaired are being failed by companies who don’t adhere to its General Condition 15 (GC15) rule, ‘Special Measures for End-Users with Disabilities’. This requires providers to offer special services, features and assistance to those most in need. These include free directory enquiries for those unable to use a printed directory because of a disability, with a through-connection to the requested number as well as bills and contracts in formats such as large print, Braille or audio on request.

Ofcom also requires businesses to give priority fault repairs for customers who depend on a landline because of illness or disability. It also said that there should be access to an approved text relay service for people who are deaf or speech-impaired.

To see if these rules were put in place the watchdog undertook some research asking mystery shoppers, calling under the guise of “realtives” of those with disabilities, to test out companies including BT , Virgin Media , TalkTalk , T-Mobile , Vodafone , Orange , O2 and Three UK. to see if they complied. However, it said the results were “fairly poor”.

Almost one in five of the mystery shopping enquiries on behalf of blind people resulted in the mystery shopper being told, at least initially, that there were no special services for disabled customers. And when it came to services for the deaf or hard of hearing only 50 percent of the companies mentioned that they had a text relay service in place.

And when it came to disabled services the results weren’t much better with only 37 percent of the mystery shoppers being provided with information about at least one service available for disabled customers without further prompting. This figure rose to 75 percent after the mystery shoppers gave the companies a nudge.  

Of 105 email enquiries sent, only 70 per cent received a personal response. Thirty one did not receive a reply during the mystery shopping exercise. Surprisingly, replies to email enquiries generally contained less information than those given over the phone even though it would have been possible for the provider to spend time checking which services were available.
Next steps

Ofcom has discussed the findings with related providers and most have apparently indicated a willingness to improve. The regulator is now awaiting an action plan with reasonable timings for improvements to be set out by each CP. Those who fail to comply could be fined up to 10 percent of their turnover for failing to meet the obligations.

The mystery shopping was conducted between August 2009 and March 2010.