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New Ofcom research has revealed that communications providers need to do more to publicise services that are available for disabled customers.

Mystery shopping was conducted by Ofcom to see what advice prospective customers were given about these services by BT, Orange, O2, TalkTalk, T-Mobile, Virgin Media, Vodafone and 3.

As part of its wider duty to further the interests of citizens and of consumers, Ofcom has a specific duty to take into consideration the needs of customers with disabilities. Ofcom must ensure that communications providers provide services for disabled customers and that these services are publicised in such a way that allows disabled customers to use and benefit from them.

The mystery shopping revealed that just over a third (37 per cent) of mystery shoppers were provided with information about at least one service available for disabled customers without further prompting.

This figure rose to three quarters (75 per cent) after prompting. This is a significant drop since Ofcom’s 2006 research when 91 per cent of calls resulted in information being provided about at least one service after prompting.

Services for disabled customers
General Condition 15 states that communications providers must provide a range of services for disabled customers* and must also take reasonable steps to ensure that these services are widely publicised such as publishing this information on their websites and giving consumers accurate information over the phone.

Mystery shopping
Ofcom conducted mystery shopping between August 2009 and March 2010 to see what advice consumers were given on the phone or by email about services for disabled customers; and what information was available on providers’ websites and how easily it could be found.

Mystery shoppers called on behalf of ‘relatives’ who were blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, had a cognitive impairment or were in hospital long term.

Blind or visually impaired customers
Almost one in five (19 per cent) 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.

Deaf and hard of hearing customers
The most commonly mentioned service for deaf customers was text relay (text relay enables people who are deaf or speech-impaired to make and receive telephone calls using a textphone, with a relay assistant in a call centre voicing what is typed, and typing back what is said). However this was only mentioned in 49 per cent of calls even after prompting (compared to 78 per cent in 2006).

Customers with cognitive impairments or in hospital long term
For people with cognitive impairments or who were in hospital long term, relevant services such as third party account access or bill management were only mentioned spontaneously in 21 per cent of calls. One in five (20 per cent) of callers were told that there were no special services for disabled customers.

Web based and email enquiries
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 of the mystery shopping with the relevant providers and has asked them to set out an action plan with reasonable timings for improvements. Most providers have shown willingness to improve the situation, and Ofcom will be working with them to ensure that this happens.

Ofcom then plans to undertake further mystery shopping and depending on the results will consider taking enforcement action if necessary which could result in a fine of up to 10 per cent of turnover for those failing to meet their obligations.

The mystery shopping report can be found here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/mar...isabled-users/.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

* Services that communications must provide are:

- Free directory enquiries for consumers who are unable to use a printed directory because of a disability, with through-connection to the requested number;

- Bills and contracts in formats such as large print, Braille or audio on request;

- Priority fault repair for customers who depend on the telephone because of illness or disability (landline phones only);

- Access to an approved text relay service for people who are deaf or speech-impaired, with rebates to compensate consumers for the additional time taken by these calls; and

- Third party bill management, enabling a nominated friend or relative to act on behalf of someone who needs help to manage their affairs.

1. Advice for consumers on services for disabled consumers can be found at: http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2009/0...sabled-people/

2. The research involved 1,271 mystery shopper contacts (excluding email) consisting of 430 blind/visually impaired, 441 deaf/hard of hearing and 400 cognitive problems/in hospital long term.

3. Under section 3(i) of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom must have regard for the needs of persons with disabilities, of the elderly and those on low incomes.

4. Under General Condition 15.8, communications providers are required to take all reasonable steps to ensure that mandated services for disabled customers are widely publicised.

5. The mystery shopping involved providers with over 5 per cent market share in the fixed and mobile markets at the time the research was commissioned.


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