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Telephone: accessibility for customers who stammer

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This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 5th December, 2008.

People who stammer often find telephone calls particularly difficult. This page aims to give guidance to businesses and other service providers on phone calls with customers/clients who stammer. For a summary on accessibility for customers who stammer, see Making services accessible.

My Telephone page brings together Equality Act issues to do with the phone.

“It is important that service providers do not assume that the only way to make services accessible to disabled people is to make a physical alteration to their premises (such as installing a ramp or widening a doorway). Often, minor measures such as allowing more time to serve a disabled customer, will help disabled people to use a service.”
Para 6.10 Services Code, 2006.

Talking with someone who stammers

People who stammer often find telephone calls more difficult than speaking face-to-face.

Allow the person time to speak. Do not finish their words or sentences. For more: Talking with someone who stammers (stamma.org).

Voice activated phone systems

Voice recognition systems should include an option to press a key to speak to a real person either in the initial menu or the first time a person is not understood. More on voice activated phone systems…

Allow extra time

A person who stammers will often need extra time – trying to hurry the person often makes the stammer more severe.

Allowing extra time needs to happen informally in individual situations, but also systems may need to be adjusted – see examples below.

Call centres – extending time limits

If staff are instructed to give each client only a certain amount of time, for example call centres, it may be a reasonable adjustment to make clear that this does not apply to people who stammer. The caller should not be hurried, and should have the time to say what he or she needs to. This may be required by the Equality Act.

In some cases it might be the normal practice to tell a caller that the call can only last a certain time (e.g. some computer helplines). Where that happens, or if the customer is otherwise likely to know of the time limit, it may help to tell the caller that they can have a longer time than normal if they wish.

Adjusting target on time within which calls answered

An organisation may have a policy that calls must be answered within say three or five rings. It may be a reasonable adjustment to make clear to a receptionist or others answering the phone that this policy is flexible, so they do not feel they have to hurry a person who stammers – still less put the phone down on them – to answer another call.

Be willing to listen

Don’t just hang up

This is pretty obvious. However, it happens with regretable frequency that someone hangs up on a person who stammers, e.g. when they are trying to book a taxi, or a table in a restaurant.

Don’t say someone else must call

An example of bad practice:

A woman who stammers phoned the hospital to confirm some details about her appointment. She was told that if she wanted to phone again she should get someone else to do it for her.

Don’t laugh

Laughing when talking with a person who stammers seems to happen quite frequently. This may indeed be the listener laughing at the person who stammers. Alternatively the laughter come from embarrassment on the part of the person listening

Whatever the reason, hearing laughter from someone they are speaking to can be extremely hurtful for the person who stammers. Staff need to be aware of this.

A person who stammers rang a public helpline. The lady at the other end laughed at her as she was trying to speak. When the caller said that wasn’t acceptable the lady said: “You see, you can talk perfectly well when you want to!”

The caller wrote to the helpline who responded excellently. They listened to their tape of the conversation. The lady was taken off the helpline for re-training. The helpline also contacted the BSA for information to help them build stammering into their general training courses for helpline staff.

Television channel Setanta apologised to a football fan with cerebral palsy after a call centre worker laughed at his speech problems. See ‘Fan gets apology from Setanta’ (manchestereveningnews.co.uk, 6/10/08). The experience is very reminiscent of what can happen with someone who stammers.

A person stammering on the phone heard the lady at the other end say to a colleague: “I’ve got a right idiot here.”

Provide alternatives to using phone

See Alternatives to the telephone.

Answering machines

People who stammer can also be disadvantaged by telephone answering machines which cut off after perhaps a couple of seconds of pause in speech. This may terminate the message in the middle of the person trying to say something.

The same applies if the machine has a maximum message length set which is too short.

Recognising on the phone that someone stammers

Some people who stammer find it particularly difficult to speak on the phone. There may be sounds you can’t understand as the person struggles to speak, repetitions, prolongations, “filling-in” words like “well”, “um”, “you know”.

Or there may just be silence initially because the person is having a silent block. It is important to remember that a stammering may result in silence for a while.

A person may well also insert or change words to try and help them speak – eg “Well, my address is…” rather than coming straight out with the address, which they are having difficulty saying.

In general it’s probably best to just wait and let the person say what they want, rather than making a comment. If a person is really having problems, it may seem a good idea to try and take the pressure off the person by saying something like: “That’s fine, take your time”. There is a risk some people may find this patronising, but others may like it.

Voice risk analysis

Voice risk analysis should not be used to flag up people with speech impairments as potentially dishonest. More on voice risk analysis…

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