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We’re Not All the Same!

Inclusive Communications: Helping older and disabled people to get more from their communications services

“…you may get a person whose speech is poor or, you know, whose communication skills are poor in general, try to be understanding …Do not assume that these people are stupid people and don’t treat them like idiots ….… don't talk to me like that, you know. I'm not a blithering idiot, you know, I’m a person.”

(Nicola, 65, multiple impairments, rural Northern Ireland)

The Communications Consumer Panel and the Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People (ACOD) have published new qualitative research which explores in detail how accessible communications providers are to customers with additional communication support needs, such as people with disabilities, and older consumers (aged 75+).


The research Inclusive Communications (PDF 745KB, opens in a new window) found that communications services can have a greater significance for older and disabled people by helping to mitigate some of the potentially disempowering effects of age or disability. They can help to reduce vulnerability by giving people access to information and services they cannot easily obtain through other channels, and by facilitating participation and inclusion.

However the report highlighted that:

  • Customer service issues such as inflexible customer service responses and poorly trained customer service agents can cause problems and frustrations
  • Systems-related issues such as passwords and call routing systems can act as barriers to inclusion
  • There is a lack of awareness – among service users and some communications providers’ staff – of specific rights for disabled people relating to equivalent access
  • People use a variety of strategies to help overcome barriers to inclusion
  • Some (but certainly not all) think that disclosing their impairment is a useful strategy to get a better experience
  • Being assertive and making complaints are other ways of combating poor treatment but many were reluctant to switch

The Panel is therefore calling for communications providers to improve their customer service to support the needs of older and disabled consumers.

Panel Chair, Jo Connell, said; “To enable consumers and citizens to benefit from the opportunities offered by modern communications services, it is vital that they are appropriately supported to do so. This research strongly suggests that some older and disabled consumers encounter a further barrier to effective use of their communications services. They are not receiving the quality of customer service to which they are entitled from their communications providers. This is unacceptable. Communications providers need to operate in a flexible way that is sensitive to the needs of the customer. Where additional adapted services are offered, they must suit the needs of the individual and be consistent and well sign-posted.”


“I think when everything’s running fine in terms of communications networks, I’m not as disabled as I might be.”

(John, 41, multiple impairments, urban South England)

The consumer experiences outlined in the Panel’s research highlight a number of systemic issues, along with opportunities for improvements. We’ve made a series of associated recommendations in our covering report We’re Not All the Same! (PDF 353KB, opens in a new window). The recommendations address the issues highlighted by the research, providing tangible actions for providers to not only improve the experience of older and disabled consumers, but to also increase the attractiveness of their businesses to those people.

  1. Recommendations for communications providers and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services

a) Enhance customer service

  • Provide a service that provides equal access to all users 
  • Allow consumers to communicate in the way that best suits individuals’ needs and abilities
  • All staff – and especially contact centre agents - should have disability training so they understand people’s situations and the equipment they may be using
  • Customer service agents must use clear language and be trained and empowered to depart from scripts when necessary
  • Develop and promote a culture that exemplifies offering a flexible solution and taking extra time to explain details when required
  • Seek the views of disabled and older customers on their experience and ask for their suggestions for improvement

b) Match communications systems and processes to individual needs

  • Communications providers and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services should both ensure contact channels are inclusive or provide and promote alternative, appropriate, equivalent methods of access and communication
  • Ensure that all customers can easily use customer service systems – including making a complaint - and monitor that this remains the case
  • Call steering menus should have no more than three options and if the customer doesn’t select any option, the call should go to an agent rather than be disconnected
  • Ensure that people using assistive technologies can contact customer services without being disconnected
  • Keep a record of needs and ensure that all contact is in a suitable/accessible format, including outgoing as well as incoming communications
  • Maintain clear records of previous contacts with the consumer

c) Have a dedicated disability team

  • Explore ways to identify customers who need extra help and get them to the right place quickly
  • Provide a dedicated person or team to deal with disabled customers
  • Offer specialist access routes – designed with and around people who are going to use them
  • Relevant customers should be routed direct to these specialist teams via provision of a specialist number or transferred to the team by an agent
  • Specialist routes need to be signposted
  • Offer flexible third-party arrangements, including the possibility of multiple pre-arranged registrations, so other people can assist the account holder

d) Better promote equivalent access channels/ GC15 service provision

  • Inform all customers of the existence of alternative access channels and the services and rights available under GC15 – especially the priority fault repair register and the safeguard scheme, including third-party bill management.
  • Actively promote services and rights of equivalent access in line with GC15 and make these rights explicit in communications
  • Ensure full operational compliance with GC15
  • Proactively offer equivalent access channels

2. Recommendations for consumers

  • Understand the impact of choosing to disclose, or not, your disability/situation and any equipment you use
  • Be aware of your rights under General Condition 15 (See Section 5 below) and any additional services for disabled people offered by your provider
  • If appropriate and you are eligible, register for the Priority Fault Repair Service
  • Be specific about your needs and what you want provided
  • Shop around and consider switching provider
  • Use complaints procedures, up to and including Alternative Dispute Resolution, if you are not happy with the service you receive

You can find out more in our covering report (PDF 353KB, opens in a new window), the full research (PDF 745KB, opens in a new window) and associated cross-sectoral desk research review (PDF 710KB, opens in a new window).

If you have any difficulties accessing content on this page, please email us at contact@communicationsconsumerpanel.org.uk