Become More Accessible to Your Customers
Here’s a fact for you: there are an estimated 3.6 million wheelchair users in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And this number is only increasing each and every year due to the aging baby boomer generation, one of the largest-living generations. In fact, currently one in five baby boomers face a mobility challenge. On top of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says more than 3.4 million Americans over 40 years old are legally blind or visually impaired, and 1 in 20 Americans are currently deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).
The sad part is, most small businesses don’t see these disabilities as an issue and aren’t even meeting the most minimum Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.
“I think it’s a complicated law,” Minh Vu, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, says. “It’s understandable if businesses are not fully aware.”
Vu is the leader of the ADA Title III team, the part of ADA that prohibits discrimination with disabilities with public accommodations, focusing on the obligations of businesses to their customers. Vu says there are a lot of rules involved. Even with the respect of rules at the business facility itself, there’s an entire book about one inch thick that applies to how high, how close, and how wide everything needs to be in the facility. So, how are small businesses supposed to know how to be compliant to not only avoid a customer handing them a hefty lawsuit, but how to provide the best customer service?
“There are a lot of rules that businesses are supposed to know and follow and there’s not a single place for a business to get all of that information,” Vu says.
Instead of making shop owners look high and low for the answers, NOLN sat down with an expert on the topic on how to provide the most accessible experience.
The Online Experience
Something you probably didn’t consider? Your website. For customers with hearing problems, it’s simply providing closed captioning if you have videos. For customers who have poor vision, just make sure not to use a white background with gray text. Simple, right? The question that lingers, however, is how does a customer who is blind access your website? With technology on our side, these customers can use websites usefully, but only if they are constructed to be compliant with this technology to do so.
People who are blind use a screen-reading software that reads out loud whatever is on the website. If there’s a link, it tells them, same with a button. Even an image can be described to them, but only if it’s properly coded.
“For this to work, the trouble is that the business has to design their websites to work with this technology, and the mass majority are not,” Vu says.
Vu can’t stress enough how important these guidelines are. So, if you are a business and you’re developing your own website, the developers should know the rules behind this and can assist you. If you’re a business that’s commissioning a third-party website, however, you need to have a conversation with this vendor.
The same goes for mobile apps, too—it’s critical the app is designed to work with technology. Yes, a smart phone, like an iPhone and Android, already has a screen reader built into it, but the mobile website needs to be designed to work with this technology.
The rules that pertain to physical access are pretty much hard and fast rules, according to Vu. In other words, you should be following them.
“You’re supposed to have the physical environment accessible,” Vu says.
This starts with the parking lot. Not only should every business have a designated handicap parking spot, but also have a part of the curb cut to the ground so someone with a wheelchair can get on the sidewalk and into the store.
As the customer walks in, the first thing they will most likely see is the sales counter. Vu says there’s a rule for having a lower sales counter under 36 inches tall for disabled customers. This rule also applies to getting around the store, too—36 inches of a clear path in order for disabled customers to get around.
“When you’re thinking about an office area or space, it’s really important to keep the area clear enough so there’s enough space to move around,” Vu says.
And for someone who can’t pick up their feet well, slipping over lifted-up floor mats can cause issues. A shop owner can either make sure it’s attached to the floor properly, or not have one at all.
When it comes to being operationally accessible, your staff needs to be prepared for when the situation rises. Vu says employees should have some understanding on how to communicate with a customer with a disability, so owners should go over the right way to give good service with their employees.
“A lot of times, people are uncomfortable,” Vu says. “One of the best ways to overcome that is to give your employees some guidance on how to approach that.”
For example, when it comes to someone who is blind and a customer can’t read their bill, the staff member should know that they need to read their bill to them. And the same things goes for helping a customer find something, like prices and reading descriptions to them. Employees can even offer them a voice memo so they can record it and listen to it again if they need.
For a deaf customer, Vu says it’s all about the setting you’re dealing with.
“If you are dealing with someone who has a speech impairment, or is having a really hard time articulating their words, ask them to write down what they were trying to say,” Vu says.
Usually, it’s okay to just exchange notes, even gesturing or pointing to something to help communicate. She says some employees sometimes like to raise their voices for them to hear, which obviously doesn’t work.
For someone that comes in with a sign language interpreter (which is the responsibility of the business to hire, according to ADA-compliance rules) or a caregiver, it’s important that an employee doesn’t just talk to the caregiver, acting like the customer doesn’t exist. Employees need to either talk directly to the customer, or engage them in the conversation.
For quick lubes that don’t have a drive-thru service, it’s important to have a space that enhances the customer experience. One room that deserves attention in this regard is in the bathroom.
For starters, it’s standard to have a wheelchair-accessible bathroom—or at least a stall if you have more than one—complete with bathroom bars and all. In this bathroom, the toilet paper has to be accessible 7 to 9 inches from the toilet. Vu says this, even having a hook not too high off the ground, may sound insignificant, but you have to consider that some people can’t reach that far.
Businesses also need to have a wheelchair-accessible sink to top it off, complete with a mirror that isn’t too high off the ground, which Vu says is pretty common. As long as the mirror is no higher than 40 inches off the ground, you’re in good shape. But what’s most important is not only the height of the mirror and the sink, but what’s underneath. Vu says a lot of businesses don’t consider the pipes underneath the sink being an issue, especially if they aren’t insulated. And for these customers, they won’t know if they are getting burned or cut when pulling their wheelchair under the sink.
“It’s a really easy fix, but it’s often missed,” Vu says.
For quick lubes looking for the easiest, fastest way to make their bathrooms compliant and accessible, however, goes along with the 36-inches rule: make a clear path, and remove whatever is removable. Trash cans, storage bins, furniture, any unnecessary items that take up too much space.
“Chances are it’s blocking the floor space that needs to be there,” Vu says.