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Voice recognition telephone systems

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Last updated 26th October, 2023.

Voice recognition systems are one of the biggest barriers to phone communication for people who stammer. They may involve a breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments unless proper steps have been taken to make them accessible. RCSLT issued a position statement (below) in August 2022. Peter Aldous MP asked a parliamentary question in 2016.

Making these systems accessible

Telephone systems which understand speech have become common. However, voice recognition software often does not understand a person with a significant stammer or other speech difficulty. Accordingly there should be an option to get through promptly to a real person if the computerised voice recognition system cannot cope.

People with communication disabilities, including people who stammer, should be involved in the testing and evaluation of automated telephone services: below RCSLT Position statement on automated telephone services, 2022. A provider who fails to do this may well find it more difficult to prove to a court that a further adjustment is not reasonable (cf Reasonable adjustment rules: employment>Assessment, consultation and trials).

A reasonable adjustment might be – I suggest – an option to speak to a real person given either in the initial menu, or at least the first time the system fails to hear or understand the caller.

Also it is particularly important that anyone answering the phone to people who select this menu option should be trained in communicating with people with communication difficulties. (Anyone at a call centre should have training in this though.) STAMMA training resources: Examples of adjustments for stammering and discrimination: services>STAMMA resources.

“Ideally, having a prompt such as ‘If you have a communication disability, skip menus and speak to a person who can help’ would alleviate issues of responding within a certain amount of time or in a certain way for a computer/artificial intelligence (AI) on the other end of the line to recognise.”
RCSLT Position statement on automated telephone services (below), 2022.

Voice Recognition
If you use a voice automated system as a channel for customers, provide an accessible alternative. This way customers with speech differences have the option to bypass the voice automated service and speak directly with a call handler who is trained in communication differences. Make sure the technology allows customers to speak at their own pace and without time limits. Offer options to pause and resume the call.
STAMMA Stammering & customer contact guide, 2023

An option to speak to a real person should. of course. be available through pressing or tapping a key, rather than being invited to say for example “operator” (as in one of the case studies below). The system may be unable to recognise the caller trying to say that.

One of the “top tips” in an Ofcom document on call centres is that the option of speaking to an operator should be included in the initial menu: Disabled customers and call centres (ofcom.org.uk).

Possible alternative adjustments:

  • saying that the caller can simply hold to be transferred (promptly) to a real person
  • allowing the caller to select options by pressing/tapping keys as an alternative to saying something
  • improving recognition of stammering by algorithms, and giving increased time to respond (perhaps through a menu option to request additional time) should be helpful. However this bullet point alone is unlikely to be enough.

This page only deals with stammering, but of course service providers and others should also take account of other communication difficulties when designing a telephone system: below RCSLT Position statement on automated telephone services. The reasonable adjustment duty on eg service providers is anticipatory, so they are required to consider in advance what adjustments people with different kinds of disabilities may require. As the RCSLT statement says, a wide range of options rather than attempting to build a “one size fits all” system may be required, and people with communication disabilities should be involved in testing and evaluating the system.

When considering what steps it is reasonable for service providers etc to have to take, it is important to bear in mind that according to case law (and the statutory Code of Practice), reasonable adjustments are not about services being “just about being accessible”, but about providing access as close as reasonably possible to that enjoyed by non-disabled individuals: see Access to service should be as close as possible to that enjoyed by others.

It is not enough to give text access (below), eg a textphone number to call.

If a service provider argues that the person could instead get a friend or family member to phone for them, see Not having to rely on friends and family.

Employer

Where a voice recognition system is used by an employer, say for their employees to report in sick, either the system itself could be made accessible or an employee who stammers should be allowed to report sick in a suitable alternative way: Examples of reasonable adjustments: In the job>Telephone: Not having to phone in sick. (There is a case study below on the similar issue of a parent reporting to a school that their child is off sick.)

Case studies

“As a stammerer, when I use the telephone and am greeted with an automated service, I’m filled with dread and panic, and, minus the lack of any personal interaction, there is simply no way for me to navigate it. All stammerers are different – some may have particular sounds or letters that are difficult to say, and that one word that’s required could be the hardest thing for them to say. So having the potential to reach a real person by physically pressing a key, rather than speaking the preferred option, is essential.”
RCSLT Position statement on automated telephone services (below), 2022.

Case study: A woman who stammers phoned her local hospital’s switchboard number, to speak to a friend who was a patient. The hospital had converted its system to voice recognition. She was asked to say the name of the person or ward she wanted to contact, or say “operator” to speak to an operator. She was unable to say any of this. She waited till the computer spoke again to see if there would be a push-button option, but there was not. She put the phone down, unable to get through.

Case study: Someone who stammers tried to book a train ticket by phone. The system used voice recognition. He had trouble with b’s and could not say “book”. He was switched to a real person only after failing about a dozen times to be understood by the computer.
Comment: Clearly this is too long: it should be possible to get through to a real person much more quickly.

Case study: A person who stammers telephoned a call centre to check that a letter sent by recorded delivery had arrived OK. He was required to read out a series of letters and numbers from his receipt. It took several tries before he managed to get the computer to recognise what he said. (Some who stammer would not succeed at all.)
See Say it again, says telephone Sam (archive of stammering.org), 2006.

Normally, the solution would be to build in the choice to speak to a real person. However, exceptionally it may be possible to make special arrangements for an individual who stammers:

Case study: A school installed a new system for recording absence. This asked for the parent’s name, child’s name, class and reason. A parent with a stammer emailed the school and explained the difficulties she experienced. The school agreed to let her email the absence officer direct.
Since the reasonable adjustment duty on schools too is anticipatory, probably the school should have have planned in advance for this issue.

RCSLT statement, August 2022

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) has issued a Position statement on automated telephone services (pdf, rcslt.org). It is introduced on their STAMMAFest Global webpage (rcslt.org). Points made by the position statement include:

  • In designing automated telephone services, service providers should seek to make the system accessible for people who communicate differently or with difficulty, including but not limited to people who stammer. There are various types of communication disabilities which service providers should consider.
  • People who communicate differently or with difficulty should be involved in the testing and evaluation of automated telephone services.
  • “Given that 20% of people experience communication difficulties at some point in their lives, the communication accessibility of automated telephone services should be a significant consideration.”
  • The position paper suggests specific steps and issues for service providers to consider to help make automated phone systems accessible for different types of communication disability.

Text access is not enough

Businesses and public bodies sometimes give a textphone number, so that callers can use a textphone or a smartphone app to have a typed conversation: see Telephone>Text Relay service – typing instead of speaking. An organisation which thinks mainly of people with hearing impairments and perhaps others who are really unable to speak may believe they have then taken sufficient steps to make the service accessible for those with communication impairments.

However the most basic problem with this is that people who stammer commonly expect to be able to have a spoken phone conversation with a service provider like anyone else, albeit it can take a bit longer. Accordingly as a rule people who stammer will no more be aware of, or able to use, this technology than any other member of the public. In any event, someone who stammers should not be deprived by gate-keeping automated systems of having a spoken conversation in the same way as anyone else.

From a legal point of view, this is backed up by the Equality Act duty to make reasonable adjustments. It can be strongly argued that this duty requires service providers (and bodies exercising a public function) to take reasonable steps to allow people who stammer to be allowed to use speech in telephone calls like other people, rather than typing. As I said above, case law and the statutory Code of Practice indicate that it is not a matter of services being “just about being accessible”, but of providing access as close as reasonably possible to that enjoyed by non-disabled individuals: see Access to service should be as close as possible to that enjoyed by others.

This applies not just to stammering of course, but to others whose communication difficulty places them in a similar position and who generally use speech.

As well as the reasonable adjustment duty, indirect discrimination and – though less important – for public bodies the public sector equality duty could also apply.

Parliamentary question, November 2016

This issue was raised in a written question by Peter Aldous MP, but the Minister failed to answer the question. Furthermore, precisely what phone arrangements companies and public bodies offer is indeed a commercial decision, but legally the Equality Act requires that they take reasonable steps to make the phone arrangements accessible.

Q Asked by Peter Aldous (Waveney)
Asked on: 21 November 2016
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Telephone Services: Speech and Language Disorders 53944
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with reference to the finding of the website stammeringlaw.org.uk on voice recognition systems and duties on companies to make reasonable adjustments, published on 25 September 2012, what statutory requirements there are for companies that use computer answering systems to ensure that those with stammering and other communication needs are able to speak to a real person.
A Answered by: Matt Hancock Answered on: 30 November 2016
The use of an automated answering service is a commercial decision. However many companies offer alternative methods of contact to assist callers who encounter difficulties when using an automated answering service.
https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2016-11-21/53944

The present web page as it was in September 2012 is available here.

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