How easy is it for clients with a disability to access your services? (first published in the Solicitor’s Journal)

by Sue Bramall

A year on from the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s requirement for pricing transparency on a limited range of services, I had been expecting to see an extension of this requirement to cover more services.  But this year, the SRA’s focus has turned to the need for law firms to improve access for clients and to ensure that information about accessibility is communicated in a helpful way on law firm websites.  In the SRA’s report Reasonable Adjustments in the Provision of Legal Services, which is based on a survey by YouGov, they highlight the barriers which clients can face and make several recommendations about how accessibility can be improved.

As none of us can escape aging (yet), the chances of having a disability increases daily.  My father’s mobility and cognition declined in his last few years, and I became acutely aware of accessibility issues and how it changed the realm of things that we could do together.  We always enjoyed day-trips and it was frustrating when we had to stop going to favourite places as I couldn’t drag the wheelchair across a gravel car park, or the disabled toilet was just too grim to contemplate!  It also reminded me of the days when I was pushing a pram, as accessibility is not just an issue for people with reduced mobility.

These venues lost our business, but others which took a more enlightened approach and made it easy for us to visit gained our custom.  The size of this client group is substantial at 18% of the population (ONS, 2011 Census), so, there are good commercial reasons for making sure that legal services are easy to access and all potential clients can see and know before they set out that they will not encounter any problems.

The YouGov report identified a number of key themes and recommendations including:

Many law firm offices are in heritage buildings and often the first thing to come to mind is wheelchair access.  Indeed, the wheelchair has long been a symbol of disability, but less than 10% of people with a disability are wheelchair users.

Legislation requires business to make reasonable adjustments to their premises and services to accommodate disabled customers.  ‘Reasonable’ is defined as the business still being able to function and trade while giving the customer the key services they require. A business cannot ignore disability and must make adjustments, but not at the cost of bankrupting or seriously damaging the business.

Wheelchairs and prams come in more than one size: while a standard wheelchair may go through mot doors, electric wheelchairs and double buggies are wider.  So simply saying that your offices are ‘step-free access’ might not be that helpful in every instance, and steps can be managed with a portable ramp.  Providing photographs and measurements, if space is tight, on your website would be more useful.  You could also consider keeping a wheelchair onsite.

Many health issues are invisible but still require some accommodation for a client to experience a good service.  For example, visiting a solicitor is stressful for many clients, but can be even more so for people who have post-traumatic-stress disorder or severe anxiety.  Often the disability may be well-managed through medication or behaviour such as in the case of diabetes, asthma or epilepsy, but occasionally a need may arise.

YouGov reported that people with mental health, learning or social disabilities face particular challenges in accessing legal information.  This is hardly surprising given the amount of legal jargon which is still used and a lack of alternative formats. How does your client care letter appear to someone with dyslexia?

Timeliness can also be a problem, as a client may need more time to consider or time for someone to explain things and help them to respond.  The standard complaints page (a SRA transparency requirement) was viewed by survey respondents as ‘overwhelming’ with the tone and layout ‘difficult to digest’.

Transparency and offsite meetings

If your offices are not accessible, then is there a suitable quiet meeting space nearby which you could use?

Many private client solicitors offer home visits, but few websites are transparent about the nature of charges for these visits.  Charges should be made clear including if there is no charge within a certain radius.

Ask clients, don’t make assumptions

It is important not to make assumptions about what someone might need, as needs may be invisible, complex and may vary from day to day or even according to the time of day.  When my father had dementia, there was a distinct pattern to the day, with certain times when he was more lucid and able to hold a conversation more easily.

One of the standout findings, for solicitors and other professional service providers, is that many disabled people are not proactively asked if they need reasonable adjustments at first contact, or only receive adjustments once an issue has occurred.

A key recommendation arising from the YouGov report is:

Our overarching recommendation is for solicitor firms to proactively ask all customers, at initial contact and appropriate intervals, If they need any reasonable adjustments.

I cannot help thinking that this wording ‘reasonable adjustments’ has been drafted by a solicitor and emanates from the legislation rather than survey respondents.  Can you imagine a restauranteur asking ‘Do you need any reasonable adjustments to the menu?’ instead of ‘Do you have any dietary requirements?’

Some more client friendly alternatives might be:

If the objective is to reassure a client that your firm is ‘open, approachable, non-judgemental, professional and understanding’ then the client will not want to worry about whether their request is ‘reasonable’.

A client should not need to explain their condition or justify their needs but should feel comfortable in making any request.

It is a good idea to telephone the day before to confirm which requirements are needed and this will put your client at ease about their visit.

Enhance your website

YouGov make several recommendations regarding the provision of information, including:

Staff training

Unhelpful staff was cited as one of the most common barriers to services being accessible, and this is an issue which the SRA has identified needs to be addressed.

After my experiences with the wheelchair, I decided to volunteer with the charity Tourism for All which has campaigned for accessible tourism for many years and helps tourism businesses to improve their services.  I’m still learning a lot and spoke to Vice Chairman Stephen Dunn about the importance of staff training.  As former Head of Employer Business Development at Remploy, he had a wealth of experience to draw upon.

“It is important to be specific about the type of training which has been received. Just as you will have a trained first-aider on the team with advanced skills and knowledge of the broad spectrum of accidents, so you should have a dedicated person who has received advanced training about disabilities and accessibilities.”

“All staff will benefit from training aimed at working with clients or colleagues with disabilities and health conditions.  It is not unusual for staff to lack confidence in dealing with disabled customers if they do not know what to say or how to approach a customer to ensure they get the correct service and experience.”

“Professional advisors often fall into the trap of addressing the carer or companion, rather than speaking directly to the client.  This can lead to stress for the advisor and the client who may already lack confidence in the service they are receiving.”

Enhance the way that information is presented

Writing marketing copy for any client communications and a website (including internet search engines) is a different skill to drafting a contract. Understandably, many lawyers find it difficult to swap to a different style of writing and struggle to embrace the requirements of search engine optimisation. 

The SRA recommend the following, which are all standard skills of a good copywriter:

Mind your language

Given these recommendations, I was surprised to see that there was no mention of language to use or avoid when speaking or writing about disability.  A Mark Twain wrote:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

This is a huge area, with many thousands of words of discussion about this on the internet, and a seemingly ever-changing lit of unacceptable phrases – and I don’t claim any expertise in this. 

Some language is considered insulting, offensive, a slur, or ableist – there is a helpful (and often updated) article by Lynda X.Z. Brown on her blog AutisticHoya.com  ‘Ableist words and terms to avoid’ (bit.ly/2ONoehB).

Some resources which you may find useful include:

Sadly, many writers take a tone which portrays someone with a disability as a burden.  The Centre for Disability Rights guide highlights how ‘it is often assumed, both explicitly and implicitly, that it is better to be dead than disabled.  Having a disability is regarded as an ultimate tragedy that destroys a life, rather than a natural part of life and a legitimate way to live’.

My own journey in caring for my father really opened my eyes to the insensitive use of phrases, such as describing someone as a ‘dementia sufferer’ rather than someone who ‘has’ or who ‘lives with’ dementia, or saying someone is ‘wheelchair-bound’ when they are a ‘wheelchair user’.  Little things make a difference, but that has always been the case when it comes to etiquette and superlative client care – we all appreciate thoughtfulness and consideration.

Well done to the SRA for raising this on the agenda, and for starting the discussion.

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by Sue Bramall

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