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By Micah Solomon, Contributor, Forbes

Kanye West just set the new record for insensitivity to customers with disabilities: Last night he stopped his show in Sydney to insist that two disabled audience members–one who was forced to prove that he couldn’t get out of his wheelchair, one who was forced to wave his prosthetic leg–get up and dance. Kanye (not actually being Jesus) was ultimately unable to get them on their feet, even after inciting the rest of the crowd to loudly boo them for holding up the show.

My question for you as a businessperson, as a leader, is this:  How does that story make you feel?  Probably a bit angry, but maybe also a wee bit smug? “We wouldn’t treat people that way around here.”

It’s understandably easy to feel smug about and removed from the most outrageous, visible abuses of customers with disabilities, whether from a clueless Kanye encouraging 10,000 people to boo someone with a prosthetic leg or from the clothing retailer Ann Klein when its store made news by refusing entry to a loyal, blind customer with a service dog.

These are straightforward offenses compared to the more subtle insults and daily insensitivity encountered by customers–perhaps in your own organization. Here, I want to call your attention to subtle aggravations you may be causing to potentially fabulous customers—and what to do about it.

A large and growing part of your customer base: A bottom-line reason to care

People with disabilities constitute a large and growing segment of the population. Furthermore, the public whom you serve includes an even larger, and also growing, proportion of people who are children of, parents of, spouses of, siblings of, or simply fond of people with disabilities. Don’t assume that showing active kindness to this segment will go unrewarded or that callousness will go unnoticed.

The best attitude to take

Strive to visibly and actively welcome and encourage people with disabilities–from the moment of entry, which is a very important touchpoint in every business and often the first place someone with a disability encounters what seems to them like ignorance or even hostility.

Your company’s entrance—your visual ‘‘hello’’—is where your attitude toward customers with disabilities is most clearly on display. I do understand how in some business settings, after years with nobody in a wheelchair showing up, keeping your ramps clear and in top condition may seem like a service to . . . exactly nobody. But I don’t think of it that way. Instead, I want you to consider that by visibly inviting and welcoming disabled clients you send a powerful message not only to them, but to their families, friends, and the myriad others who care about them. It says that you have broken down barriers to entry; you’re on the right side of this issue.

Many disabilities are subtle

People in our society with disabilities include those who use wheelchairs and many who don’t, in fact the majority of physically challenged customers don’t use wheelchairs or scooters.  (The universal use of the wheelchair symbol to indicate disability may be responsible for this common misconception.)  The spectrum includes visual disabilities of greater and lesser severity, chronic pain, lack of manual dexterity and other issues that are less visible–or invisible!– yet affect our customers and their loved ones.

This is a good reason to use ‘‘universal access’’ levers for all your doors (doing a few of them doesn’t cut it) instead of round doorknobs at all of your points of entry, on restroom facilities, and wherever else possible within your facility. It’s also an important reason to make doors self-closing and only lightly weighted. It is a good investment to read some of the best source books on this subject: Directly or indirectly, thousands of dollars have likely been spent—or should be spent—making the ‘‘bones’’ of your facility appropriate for disabled customers; your research will ensure that investment is used appropriately.

Roadblocks you may not be aware of in your facility

Barriers can occur at many places other than entry and exit points. For someone using a wheelchair, a single narrow hallway with no reasonable and clearly marked alternate route can botch the whole deal. Here are some other bottlenecks  I’ve seen that shout ‘‘I don’t care much about you!’’

  • A celebrated spa that always has a fresh floral arrangement perched on (and thus blocking the use of) the toilet stall’s grab bar
  • A lavishly renovated espresso cafe—with a juice cooler jutting out to make the turn into the restroom impossible in a wheelchair
  • The railing for a bustling National Park Service gift shop’s ramp that is entirely obscured by overflow merchandise
    Office building elevators that have the slot for keycard access placed high above the buttons
  • The many businesses that put their vehicles and dumpsters in the cross-hatched areas next to handicapped spaces, apparently unaware that this area is necessary for wheelchair and scooter loading and unloading

In addition to the physical aspects of your facility, it is important to consider the way your staff interacts with the physically challenged guests they are assisting. Too often I see service workers towering over a guest in a wheelchair or grabbing a visually impaired guest by the arm in an attempt to guide her somewhere (rather than offering an arm for the guest to take). There are plenty of good training programs on the market for how to properly serve disabled customers. It is well worth investing in one.

Visual and auditory disabilities, and technological change

Visual and auditory disabilities are also quite common. Make sure you’re creating an unusually positive ‘‘greeting’’ for such customers and their allies, in person and online. The web has huge potential as an equalizer for people with sight and hearing loss.  As a first step, make sure you aren’t inadvertently slamming a virtual door in their faces in any of these common ways:

  • Inappropriate use of CAPTCHAS:  Efforts to block spammers and hacker (certainly important) can also end up barring disabled customers, in this case those with visual impairments. Websites frequently require the input of a CAPTCHA (CAPTCHA is a laborious acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) to join a site or use its contact forms; but by doing so without an audio alternative or other non-visual substitute, it also blocks out customers who have sight impairments.

This is bad business, unethical and potentially illegal, by violating Section 508.2 (Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is the federal law requiring that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities—further defining “accessibility” as the ability to be used as effectively by those with disabilities as by those without.) Note, though, that many of the available audio alternatives to CAPTCHAs are incredibly difficult to use as well (try one out yourself and see), so be thoughtful in choosing and implementing these, too.

  • Lack of appropriate channel flexibility and design in customer service and customer support: Be sensitive to this when providing customer care. Not all your customers can interact with your IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems). They may have hearing loss or vocal limitations to the point that it’s not possible.
  • Inappropriate web design: Not everyone can see the graphics-intensive Website you’re so proud of. It may be entirely unreadable by blind customers who depend on screen-reading technology. This is why it’s so important that you follow good accessibility protocols in designing your Website. (If your Web designer says, “What’s that?” or “That’s not important” when you bring up accessibility, take your business elsewhere or partner your Web designer with an expert in this area.)

To give a simple example of what you need to watch out for, consider the issue of graphics without readable alt tags. An alt (alternate) tag describes or substitutes for the image when using a text reader. Think of it as a caption. Make sure your web team checks the comprehensiveness and accuracy of your alt tags just as carefully as you proofread your site for, say, dead links.

How you treat employees may reflect the spirit of Kanye as well

Part of the mistake that Kanye made was this:  he assumed that everyone in his audience could comfortably stand up and dance– that if you weren’t visibly disabled, then sitting down meant you’re a slacker or an ingrate who was refusing to get with the program. He actually got thousand upon thousand of fans to chant “stand up, stand up” all the way to the point where it was clear they couldn’t. But are you doing the same at your office?  For example: in holding trendy “standup meetings.” While I strongly endorse short, even microscopic meeting lengths, calling them “standup meetings” and taking the chairs out of the office is incredibly discriminatory.  Many, many employees (as well as at least as many of your customers) are unable to do, physically, everything that a fully able-bodied person is.  And they shouldn’t have to humiliate themselves, to “out” themselves, to get this point across.


Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience consultant, speaker and the bestselling author most recently of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service


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