What makes a grown up and (fairly) level headed woman bash her head on a desk? I’ll tell you – the third call of the day to a major utility provider. A problem with billing should have been a two minute call. Instead I had to work my way through multiple choice machine questions and key in my account number before I could speak to a real person. Then the real person really had not got a grip on either my accent (English southern) requiring three attempts at spelling my surname and struggled to pick up the exasperated (but still polite) tone in my voice. Then the phone cut out (maybe they HAD got the tone). Then ringing to complain I got stuck in a loop of referrals between people and machines and hold tones. Cue one dent in desk.
I'm not alone. The Guardian reports that Brian Evans of Bristol attempted to make an appointment using an automated system for an eye appointment only to find that the system did not get his, not so broad, accent. The Guardian then did an, oh so ‘funny’, investigation ringing up phone lines with a range of accents and a lisp.
Except it’s not a joke is it. If I struggled – being fairly articulate and confident - and all the systems tested by the Guardian failed, then how accessible are these services for those who struggle with speech, language or communication? How do voice recognition systems work for people who stammer or use AAC? How can people with SLI navigate systems that use complex language or business jargon and where even the real people that you get through to struggle to be understood? It’s not on.
There have been several attempts at creating a Communication Charter or Kitemark for organisations that are ‘communication friendly’ and work in Scotland is quite advanced on developing a culture where it’s as unacceptable to deny access on grounds of communication as it would be to put a flight of stairs into a public building with no ramp. We need to get there too. It would save me buying a new desk.