If you suddenly became aware that the needs of one in four of your customers were not being met- how would you react? You’d probably prepare to make some drastic and immediate changes, right?

Well, 24% of people in the UK have a disability, and globally the disability market controls over $13 trillion in disposable income, (that’s £274 billion in the UK alone), yet only 10% of companies have a targeted plan to access that market. As a result, three out of four people with disabilities walk away from retail outlets due to poor customer service or accessibility. 

So, how can businesses enhance the customer experience for people with disabilities, whilst benefiting from the financial gains that inclusivity brings? 

In order to know what must be changed, we must first gain an understanding of our shortcomings, and this can only properly be understood by taking a closer look at how we perceive customers with disabilities.  

Most businesses, when considering the needs of customers with disabilities, mainly focus on the impairments that can be seen. We tend to think of customers using wheelchairs and walking aids for example, or white sticks and service dogs. In actual fact only a small percentage of disabilities are visible and shockingly, 80% are non-visible (also known as hidden). Sadly, being unaware that your customer has a disability, means you can easily, (but unknowingly) be providing them with a poor CX, as staff can easily misunderstand or perceive people’s behaviour negatively. Fortunately, by implementing a few simple changes you can begin to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, whose impairments cannot be seen. 

So, what is a non-visible disability? 

Put simply, a non-visible disability is an impairment that is not visually obvious or apparent, which can be physical, sensory, neurological, or mental. There is an enormous amount of non-visible disabilities such as mental health issues, personality disorders, the autism spectrum, dementia, learning disabilities, chronic pain, respiratory conditions, MS, diabetes, visual and hearing impairments – to mention just a few. 

Of course, when we list these impairments like this, the very idea of meeting all the specific needs and improving the customer experience of people with non-visible disabilities, seems a difficult task, but there are a number of small adjustments and changes we can make to ensure your team provides a CX that is inclusive to all. 

Making changes – Developing awareness 

The best place to start when implementing changes around developing accessibility and inclusion, is to gain awareness. If your customer facing staff have a strong understanding of what a hidden disability is, and they then gain empathy, knowledge, and experience, then you have already made a big step. An awareness training provider (preferably one that’s user-led – meaning they have lived experience of disability themselves), can help your customer facing staff to recognise the behaviour of people with hidden disabilities, and adapt a method of service accordingly, offering additional or alternative support, if necessary. 

Reducing sensory output 

Shopping in any retail capacity can be a huge challenge for people with autism, or other hidden disabilities, given the sensory overload that the hustle and bustle, music, unnecessary visual stimulation, customer announcements and bright lights can cause, and so many retail outlets are now providing ‘quiet times’, when all of the above is reduced. 

This allows for a calmer, quieter shopping period, ensuring customers that are neurodiverse, can shop in a way that improves their experience. It also allows staff to gain an understanding and get used to the fact that during this period especially, some of the customers may well have additional needs.

Up your game – and reap the rewards 

Many organisations are making great leaps in addressing the needs of people with hidden disabilities, and quite often the customerexperience is being considered well in advance of their visit to ensure outlets are prepared to meet their needs.  

For example, WelcoMe, specialises in making face-to-face transactions between staff teams and customers with disabilities as anxiety-free and friendly as possible. Using a cloud-based service platform, the company allows users to plan a visit, and communicate with staff before, so that they can manage, understand, and assist as per their requirements and needs. Earlier this year, Levis implemented the system into a number of stores. 

Another good example of pre-planned assistance is Changi (Singapore) Airport’s efforts to specifically address the unique challenges for people with non-visible disabilities. The airport is offering a stress-free, inclusive travel atmosphere for passengers, by offering an easy to understand, step-by-step customisable guide provided prior to a visit, outlining the passenger’s entire airport journey from check-in to boarding. People with non-visible disabilities are able to access lanyards to show they require additional assistance and can use other tools to gain extra support. The Airport has also appointed 300 frontline staff who have been trained specifically to assist these passengers and are trained to recognise signs and behaviour that may suggest a person has an invisible disability, as well as how to engage with and approach them using an ‘Observe, Wait, and Listen’ (OWL) approach.

Training staff to interact with sensitivity 

One huge benefit of providing an improved customer experience for people with non-visible disabilities, is that all customers benefit. Why? Because after training staff to accommodate people with non-visible disabilities, they naturally become less judgemental, patient, more sensitive, attentive, and aware. This is especially important since not all of those with hidden disabilities are aware that they have them, just look to those who are diagnosed with autism or dyslexia later in life as examples.

We should never make assumptions or jump to conclusions about anyone’s impairments, only do our best to meet their needs, therefore staff should be trained to treat all customers respectfully and politely. If staff are trained to follow social cues, communicate clearly, to discreetly recognise and address discomfort in order to improve a person with a hidden disability’s experience, these qualities will only enhance the service they provide for all. 

Final thoughts

In summary, people with hidden disabilities account for a vast number of customers, and with some consideration, and by implementing some simple changes, we can easily accommodate their needs, whilst improving our overall standard of customer service. Of course, we must first foster a culture of inclusion within the businesses we operate within, and train our customer facing staff, as having an inclusive mindset is the most essential component of becoming an accessible company.

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