Hey, guys! Today I’m going to be sharing some negative experiences I’ve had with customer service and advice on what could’ve been done better. Me and my mother both love to learn and discover so we have a tradition of visiting a different museum every month. Body museums, chocolate museums, train museums, prison museums… we’ve seen it all. With my friends, I like to see Marvel movies in the cinema and go to cafés to hang out. Basically, for a disabled teenager – I really get around.
Sometimes staff are very helpful when it comes to my disability; sometimes they’re a little confused by me; sometimes they’re downright rude. So here are five tips on the correct way to serve disabled customers:
1. Don’t take advantage
I rely on a lot of other people to handle my money since my fingers are physically incapable of holding coins. I usually just bring my colourful purse along with me and then hand it to friends, cashiers, or workers at a restaurant when they ask me to pay. I trust them to count out the correct amount of money and take it. Thankfully it rarely happens, but once or twice, the numbers haven’t added up when I’ve got back home. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt and say that the money was probably accidentally counted incorrectly.
My advice: My advice is to always count out a wheelchair-user’s money in front of them if they can’t take the money out of their purse/wallet themselves. I rely on the goodness of others when I spend money outside the house so it helps to take a little extra stress off my mind when I see cashiers showing me that they aren’t taking more of my money than necessary. The good news is: as a wheelchair-user, I do get a lot of discounts!
2. Wheelchair-accessible should mean wheelchair-accessible
If you’re a wheelchair-user, then you know that you have to check everything (and then check it again) before you can go anywhere: check whether your destination is wheelchair-accessible, what parts of it aren’t, if there are lifts or stairs, etc. When we go on holiday, we also have to take into account what the general terrain of the country is like, how the pavements/ramps look, and if they have enough wheelchair-parking spots around. Not to mention checking the itinerary for every day to see where we could visit and what I could do, since there are some things other wheelchair-users can do that I can’t, and vice versa. It’s a very meticulous and careful process.
Now imagine when certain places pass all of these checks by claiming to be wheelchair-accessible – but really aren’t. In most countries, you only need one room in the entire building to be accessible to wheelchairs to be able to claim that the whole thing is. We once went to a so-called ‘wheelchair-accessible’ castle and I could only travel up and down one empty hallway in the entire place. It’s exhausting and a waste to spend money on travel, travel far, pay for visiting the attraction, and then only be able to spend five minutes travelling up and down a long corridor.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened – how many countless museums and buildings have misleading information in their brochures and websites about accessibility. It can truly ruin a wheelchair-user’s day. It’s also annoying when attractions (like a castle we visited in Warwick) have a lift but it’s been broken for many weeks and their website wasn’t updated to include this information
My advice: I know that you can claim to be wheelchair-accessible if only one of your rooms is, but please don’t bother. And if your lifts have been broken for a long time, please update your website to include this information and save people from potentially wasting their day travelling out to a place that they actually can’t visit.
3. Make clear if disabled people need to bring proof with them
One truly shocking experience I had was going to a museum in Amsterdam with my mother and father. The museum offered a discount for disabled visitors and they had to take a different path through the museum to be able to access its lifts. Me and my parents went to register as a disabled visitor at the front desk only to be told: “no, those features are only for people who are actually disabled.” I looked down at my wheelchair. What?! He refused to believe that I was disabled. He said that it wasn’t for people who had simply sprained their ankle or broken their leg for a few days. He explained afterwards that my age contributed to his disbelief: in most people’s minds, only old people can be ‘truly’ disabled and young people only end up in wheelchairs due to temporary injuries.
My father attempted to explain to him that I was simply born this way. But, even though my father was speaking in a perfectly calm voice, the desk worker was intimidated by him. Therefore, he started to panic and the discussion became more heated. It looked as if the worker was moments away from calling help and kicking us out before my father found a way to defuse the situation: the only way he could get the man to believe that I was truly disabled was by picking up my limp wrists and showing him my curled, limp fingers. After the desk worker examined them – the realisation sunk in. He was extremely apologetic afterwards and admitted that he handled the situation badly which I appreciated. I don’t think that he meant to offend us. It was just a misunderstanding. But it did feel very demeaning having to show him my hands like that, and he wasn’t properly listening to my father as he tried to explain the situation.
My advice: If you’re going to let your front desk workers guess on a case-by-case basis who is disabled and who isn’t – just say on your website that they should bring proof of disability with them and save everyone the hassle, please.
4. Know how to treat disabled people if you are a disability service worker
Some of the worst ableism I’ve encountered has been from people who work specifically with disabled people: it was the accessibility experts at the London airports who would address my mother instead of me when asking questions about me, it has been wheelchair taxi drivers who have made the offensive assumptions that I couldn’t read or that I couldn’t move my limbs on my own (so they picked up my arms without my permission and moved them for me), it was a disability nurse who refused to stop calling me ‘handicapped’ after I kindly asked her to stop addressing me with that term.
My advice: Their excuse is always: “I see so many disabled people every day and they usually do it like this or ask me to do this.” I can’t comprehend how someone who works so closely with disabled people doesn’t understand that we’re not all the same. I know it might seem tedious to have to ask every time what a disabled person’s abilities are but please do keep asking and don’t assume. No matter how many of us you see in a day.
5. Awareness about wheelchair spots on trains
Most people know how difficult it is to travel via bus and train in a wheelchair. They know how sometimes you have to travel in circles until you finally find another stop on your journey that has an exit for wheelchairs. However, even when trains do have spots for wheelchairs, it can still be an unpleasant journey. Wheelchair seats on trains in the Netherlands are usually right next to the train’s toilet or in an unpractical place on the vehicle.
On a journey to Amsterdam one day, the wheelchair seat was right in the middle of a busy hallway on the train which people were constantly walking through. There wasn’t a lot of space, so people were regularly tripping over my legs, squeezing past by pressing into me, and bashing roughly past me as they walked through. It made for a very uncomfortable, painful, and generally awful ride. I couldn’t do anything but turn my face away from the people stumbling over my legs as I cried silent tears of distress. That train ride made me feel like something I hate to feel like: an obstacle in the way.
My advice: I wish I could advise on how to change something like this – but since we’re still at the stage of having to feel thankful when a building has a wheelchair-accessible bathroom or when a train has a spot for a wheelchair in the first place – I doubt that something like this is going to change for many years to come. I truly understand why so many disabled people hate to travel (or even leave their homes sometimes).
That’s it for these five tips! They may seem a little negative, but the ending to almost every one of these stories is that I ended up having a great time with my family or friends on a fantastic day out. I know that most of these customer services/service workers meant well, so I don’t hold any hostility towards them – these are simply some tips which may help them to make their disabled visitor’s lives a little easier. I don’t see people talking about these kinds of things very often so I decided to speak up about it. I hope that you enjoyed them!
I know that most people have stories like these. What is your experience of being mistreated by customer service? What could have been done to improve the situation? Feel free to comment below. Thanks so much for reading ❤ See you soon!