A reasonable adjustment
By Sue Bramall
Sue Bramall asks firms to consider how easy it is for disabled clients to access their services
A year on from the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) requirement for pricing transparency on a limited range of services, I was expecting to see an extension of this requirement to cover more services.
But this year, the regulator’s focus has turned to the need for law firms to improve access for clients and to ensure information about accessibility is communicated in a helpful way on firm websites.
The SRA’s report, Reasonable Adjustments in the Provision of Legal Services (published October 2019), is based on a YouGov survey and highlights the barriers which clients can face; and the SRA makes 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 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 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 the disabled client group is substantial at 18 per cent of the population (ONS, 2011 Census), so there are good commercial reasons for ensuring legal services are easy to access – and all potential clients can, before setting out, see and know that they will not encounter any problems.
The YouGov report identified a number of key themes and recommendations including:
- Having an easy to navigate and accessible website.
- Providing clear information that is easy to read.
- Being able to speak to staff if needed.
- Having a dedicated and properly trained person to speak to about adjustments.
- Greater empathy and understanding from staff.
Many law firm offices are in heritage buildings; and the first thing to come to mind is often wheelchair access. Indeed, the wheelchair has long been a symbol of disability, but less than 10 per cent of people with a disability are wheelchair users.
Businesses are legally required 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 requires. 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: a standard wheelchair may go through most doors but electric wheelchairs and double buggies are wider. So simply saying your offices are ‘step-free access’ might not be that helpful in every instance; and steps can be managed with a portable ramp.
If space is tight, displaying photographs and measurements on your website would be more useful. You could also consider keeping a wheelchair on site.
Many health issues are invisible but still need to be accommodated so that the client can experience a good service. For example, visiting a solicitor is stressful for many clients but can be even more so for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety.
The disability may often be well-managed with medication or behaviour such as in the case of diabetes, asthma or epilepsy, but occasionally an accessibility 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 still being used and a lack of alternative formats. How, for instance, does your client care letter appear to someone with dyslexia?
Timeliness can also be a problem, for example, a client may need more time for someone to explain things and help them respond. Survey respondents found the standard complaints page (an SRA transparency requirement) overwhelming with the tone and layout “difficult to digest”.
If your offices are not accessible, is there a suitable quiet meeting space nearby 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 for visits within a certain radius.
It is important not to make assumptions about what someone might need. 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. At certain times he was more lucid than at other times and able to hold a conversation more easily.
One of the standout findings of the report is that many disabled people are not proactively asked if they need reasonable adjustments at first contact, or they only receive adjustments once an issue has occurred.
It states: “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 the wording “reasonable adjustments” was drafted by a solicitor and emanates from 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?” Client-friendly alternatives might be:
- Is there anything you need to make your visit easy or accessible?
- Do you have any accessibility requirements?
- Are there any adjustments you would like for when you come here?
If the objective is to reassure a client that your firm is “open, approachable, non judgemental, professional and understanding”, they will not worry 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.
Lawyers could also contact them the day before the appointment to confirm which requirements are needed, putting your client at ease about their visit.
YouGov makes several recommendations regarding the provision of information, including:
?? Display images of your office interior and exterior.
?? Offer written or verbal information at first contact.
?? Communicate timeframes clearly.
?? Include contact details for a dedicated person who can talk to and help a client with a disability.
?? Highlight if staff have been trained.
?? Highlight if the firm has any accreditations from a charity.
Unhelpful staff was cited as one of the most common barriers to services being accessible and the SRA has identified this issue needs to be addressed.
After my wheelchair experiences, I decided to volunteer with the charity Tourism for All which has campaigned for accessible tourism for many years, helping tourism businesses improve their services.
I’m still learning; and spoke to vice chair Stephen Dunn about the importance of staff training (he had a wealth of experience to draw upon as former head of employer business development at Remploy). He said: “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.”
Writing marketing copy for client communications and for a website (including internet search engines) is a different skill to drafting a contract. Many lawyers understandably find it difficult to change to a different style of writing and struggle to embrace the requirements of search engine optimisation.
The SRA recommends the following (these are standard skills of a good copywriter):
- Keep sentences short and use bullet points.
- Use colour and ensure it is accessible.
- Use spacing to break up dense text.
- Use a clear font (min 14-point).
- Use images.
- Avoid jargon.
- Provide information in a range of accessible formats.
Mind your language
Given these recommendations, I was surprised by the lack of any mention of language to use or avoid when speaking or writing about disability.
As 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 a seemingly ever-changing list of unacceptable phrases. Some language is now considered insulting, offensive, a slur or ableist. (See useful resources below).
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 opened my eyes to the insensitive use of such phrases 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.
Readers may find these resources particularly helpful:
An article (often updated) on ableist words and terms to avoid, by Lynda X. Z. Brown on her blog at autistichoya.com.
Dementia words matter: Guidelines On Language About Dementia is produced by The Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP).
Guidelines: How To Write And Report About People With Disabilities is a neat, 12-page style guide produced by the Research and Training Centre on Independent Living at the University of Kansas, which also has a one-page poster of what to say and what not to say.
Disability Writing and Journalism Guidelines is produced by the US Centre for Disability Rights. It highlights common pitfalls such as not involving people with disabilities, adopting common stereotypes, failing to reflect that people with a disability may also be part of another minority group, and the dangers of ‘inspiration porn’ which slants stories to “allow a nondisabled audience to feel warm and fuzzy”.
Sue Bramall is director of Berners Marketing bernersmarketing.com