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Investigation: How accessible are broadband customer services to the deaf community?

Monday, August 13th 2018 by Oprah Flash

Broadband customer services have been described as "insulting" and "inaccessible" to deaf customers, with campaigners calling for a change in the way providers look at accessibility.

The Equality Act 2010 insists that all organisations have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for users with additional needs, while Ofcom requires all landline, broadband and mobile companies to provide a range of measures to allow disabled customers to access these services.

For deaf people and those with hearing loss, this means access to a Next Generation Text Relay Service (NGTS), access to emergency SMS and third-party bill management. NGTS is a service for those who are unable to hear or communicate verbally. It uses what is known as a relay assistant to convert speech into text and vice versa.

BT, Three, O2, EE, Vodafone, Sky and Virgin have taken it a step further and include a Video Relay Service (VRS) that connects customers to a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter.

While the providers are obliged to supply additional facilities for deaf and disabled customers, it appears not enough is being done to ensure they are up to date and fit for purpose.

Cable carried out an investigation into whether the current facilities in place are sufficient and what providers can do to improve them. We unearthed dated and hard-to-find accessibility web pages, and spoke to members of the deaf community who made it clear that quite often, some of the services do not work, or when they do, the customer is still asked to communicate verbally over the phone.

As part of the investigation, Cable tested the customer services accessibility pages of each of the top six broadband companies.

For us, BT has the worst website for finding the accessibility features. Unlike the other providers, it doesn’t have an Accessibility tab at the footer of the page, nor are there any additional options on the Contact Us landing page. We finally resorted to a Google search of BT BSL and BT Accessibility. Once you find it, the page looks archaic and basic.

Broadband providers' accessibility pages for customer services are frustratingly hard to find on their websites

Vodafone, EE, Plusnet and TalkTalk’s pages are very similar, but offer more information than those of BT – and are easier to find. In terms of format, the details given and general navigability, Sky has the best accessibility page. With the exception of Virgin Media and Sky, the accessibility pages of most providers merely present a token effort.

We spoke to TalkTalk customer Andrew Arthur, who is deaf and has experienced first hand the lack of accessible customer services available in the telecoms sector.

'Pretty insulting and typically ignorant'

Mr Arthur, 70, from Liskeard in Cornwall, started having problems with his phone line, which he uses to make calls via the Next Generation Text service (NGTS), earlier this year when the village phone system was hit by lightning during a bad storm.

After trying to resolve the problem from home, Mr Arthur attempted to get in touch with TalkTalk via its online webchat service. He was able to report the problem but upon receiving no response had to report the fault again a week later.

Two weeks after the problem was initially reported, a TalkTalk representative asked Mr Arthur to make a phone call in order to access the fault-finding service. Mr Arthur alerted them to the fact that he is deaf and asked for an alternative method.

“The best they could come up with was ‘can't you ask someone else to do it for you?’," he told Cable. "I thought this was pretty insulting and typically ignorant. I'm entitled to a reasonable adjustment but they just did nothing. Again, I contacted them and again they insisted that I had to ring them on a mobile before they would fix the line.”

Frustrated with the lack of accessibility and the ordeal that several customer service operatives were putting him through, Mr Arthur took the matter into his own hands and reported it to both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and to a telecoms ombudsman.

He added: “It's absolutely unbelievable that TalkTalk can get away with being so awkward and unhelpful. I thought that is what all these laws were designed to avoid. What I found astonishing was that in the 21st century a company the size of TalkTalk could be so ignorant about disability matters.”

Mr Arthur’s problem was eventually resolved, TalkTalk apologised and fixed the phone line but the overall issue doesn’t end here. There are others going through the same plight with other providers.

Ashley Graczyk is calling for "robust action" after struggling to close her account with Plusnet

Ashley Graczyk, who represents the Sighthill and Gorgie areas of Edinburgh as a city councillor, is profoundly deaf and campaigns for social justice and disability rights.

As a former Plusnet customer, she had trouble for a few months trying close her account due to the provider’s “inaccessible” website.

“Many deaf customers, including myself, have struggled immensely to resolve issues with internet providers, such as trying to close an account, because they have claimed that they can only communicate via the phone. This is despite making these providers aware via social media of why we were unable to use the phone," said Cllr Graczyk.

“Some deaf customers are even landed with a bigger bill, due to charges added by the providers themselves and collection agencies, which deaf customers are forced to pay. All because certain internet providers have not made their services accessible to deaf people. Robust action must be taken.”

Mr Arthur and Cllr Graczyk are not alone in experiencing accessibilities issues with broadband and mobile service providers. Scores of deaf customers have taken to social media to air their frustrations.

'Strict rules'

Cable asked Ofcom whether providers were doing enough to make their customer services accessible. A spokesperson said: “We impose strict rules that providers must follow when dealing with customer complaints and take any failure to abide by them very seriously.

“If people are unable to resolve the complaint with their provider, they have a right to have the matter considered by a dispute resolution scheme.”

Providers may argue their webchat service provides a solution for communication issues, but some deaf users have struggled to have their complaints resolved via this feature.

Molly Watt, an accessibility consultant and campaigner, said some deaf people can communicate over the phone but may be prone to mis-hearing or mis-interpreting information, which can be critical – especially when talking to new people or discussing important details.

Others within the community can only access sign language or lip reading, so many resort to conversing via Skype and FaceTime.

“It is also key to recognise that not all deaf people can lip-read, or access written text due to language barriers,” Ms Watt said.

Asked about Video Relay Services, she added: “That will only suit a small group of deaf people within the community. It is stereotypical to assume all will access the service by providing this. There are different sign language methods – British Sign Language, SSE etc.

“Not all deaf people access speech via sign language (including myself) so there is more to be done to reach the needs of all deaf/hearing impaired users.”

One in six people have hearing loss and for 87,000 people around the UK, BSL is their first language.

According to research gathered by Action on Hearing Loss, there are currently 11 million people (one in six) with hearing loss in the UK, and that number is predicted to rise to 15.6 million by 2035. Figures compiled by the British Deaf Association shows there are 87,000 Brits who use British Sign Language as their main language with English as a second or third language for many.

Some within the community are campaigning for equality for BSL as an official language, including 12-year-old Daniel Jillings, who has successfully campaigned for BSL to be introduced into the national curriculum as a GCSE subject.

Providers 'won't speak to a third party'

Sign Solutions is an independent interpreting agency that provides an online Video Relay Service, which connects customers to a live BSL interpreter, when trying to communicate with companies including Three, EE and Virgin Media.

CEO Sean Nicholson said: “The problem with a lot of [accessibility] services is they are pushed into one department who are responsible for equality and diversity so the provider thinks that’s it, but really these things are about everybody and so should be part of the wider picture.”

Sign Solutions interpreters are experienced in all forms of sign language including BSL and SSE, but Mr Nicholson points out that not all deaf people use Sign Language, so Video Relays Services do not meet the needs of those who primarily use other forms of communication.

He highlighted Virgin Media as one of the most accessible providers that has promoted the service and trained staff in deaf awareness, but said there is still more to do.

“The biggest issue that deaf people have – not only with broadband companies, but with most companies – is they won’t allow them to speak to a third party," said Mr Nicholson. "The deaf person will call and the customer service operator says we need to speak to the account holder. The interpreter will say 'you are speaking to the account holder, I’m interpreting for them because they are deaf'.”

Despite the Equality Act 2010 advising that taking calls via a relay service would not be a breach of the Data Protection Act, Mr Nicholson says this problem is still prevalent today.

He added: "In terms of video services and telephone interpreting, that is one of the biggest bugbears of deaf people; they go through all the trouble to make the call and then the provider won’t speak to them."

Video Relay Services help members of the deaf community who use BSL, to get in touch with service providers

The UK Council of Deafness (UKCoD), the umbrella body for voluntary groups working with deaf people in the UK, has published a full list of companies across Britain that offer Video Relay Services (VRS). Notably, of the UK’s major internet service providers, TalkTalk and Plusnet are not on the list.

Mr Nicholson told Cable that VRS is cheap and easy to install, and suggested the main barrier preventing companies like TalkTalk and Plusnet getting onboard is a lack of social responsibility.

UKCoD, responding to an Ofcom consultation earlier this year, said: “Unfortunately, we do not feel enough has been done to ensure communication providers have made NGTS fully functional to its deaf customers, nor have they actively promoted the service.

“Had they done so, the number of users of NGTS users would have increased rather than stayed relatively static over the last few years.

“Whilst we recognise the telecommunications industry has been busy in recent years with takeovers, we are mindful that Ofcom has been involved in the decisions related to approval. Yet it would appear that accessibility has not been part of this decision making."

Providers 'committed' to good service

Asked how good their accessibility services are, providers responded with very similar and generic answers.

A TalkTalk spokesperson told us: “We’re committed to providing everyone with the best possible service. We have a number of options available for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing to get in touch including text relay, live-chat/in-app messaging or asking a friend or relative to report a fault on their behalf."

While Virgin has been highlighted as one of the best providers for accessibility, its response almost mirrored that of TalkTalk.

A Virgin Media spokesperson said: “We’re committed to providing a range of products and services which are accessible for all of our customers. We're working closely with our charity partner Scope to transform the experience for disabled customers.”

The same goes for Plusnet. A spokesperson said: “We offer a variety of services that enable disabled customers to get in touch with us, including our next generation text service which allows deaf customerd to convert voice messages to text. Full details of all the services we offer can be found on our help web pages.”

Sky and BT have not offered a comment.

The UKCoD are hopeful that the development of 5G will help providers with their Video Relay Services

'An afterthought to the development of new technology'

The Equality Act 2010, which stipulates that companies should make their services available to everyone, is now eight years old, but it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure its measures are enforced.

With most providers already claiming they are “committed” to being accessible to all, campaigners for deaf and disabled customers have a fight on their hands to raise awareness and force providers to update their services.

Mr Arthur said: “It's an important issue for all deaf people that we have a reasonable adjustment for not being able to use the phone”, while Mr Nicholson, of Sign Solutions, said: "It’s about social responsibility and getting somebody in place that champions it.”

Last year, Ofcom mapped out changes to its General Conditions that require broadband and mobile companies to publish their policy outlining the measures they have in place to ensure all customers are treated fairly. The changes will be implemented from October.

UKCoD is pinning its hopes on the development of 5G, the next generation of mobile technology, to provide a window of opportunity for companies to improve their accessibility services.

“The development of new technologies over recent years has had a significant impact on reducing the communication barriers between the deaf and hearing communities," it said in a statement.

“We see the development of 5G as another step in that direction, albeit with some concerns, and feel that Ofcom could use this opportunity to advance full and equivalent communication through an array of telephone relay services, potentially resourced and financed through the introduction of 5G.”

UKCoD is also calling for Ofcom to step up: “We believe Ofcom should ensure that accessibility is considered in future in the approval process so that vulnerable people do not become disadvantaged as a result.

"Ofcom needs to review the way it regulates with regards accessibility. Currently access is an afterthought to the development of new technology.”

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