Achieving Manitoba's New Customer Service Accessibility Standard
Careful Research and Policy Change Needed to Fulfill the First of Five Established Standards
On November 1, 2015, provincial government regulation came into effect that aims to remove customer service barriers for people with disabilities. The Manitoba government put into effect the Customer Service Accessibility Standard, the first of five established standards outlined in the Accessibility for Manitobans Act 1.
While the mandate is clear, both employers and members of the disabled community need to carefully analyze the new standard and decide on how they will respond and react to the prescribed changes.
If the standard is embraced and its measures are implemented across all business sectors, employers should expect to see an increase in not only customer numbers, but in overall patron satisfaction and support. I spoke with a number of employers who agreed that this is good news, but they were quick to mention that these changes will come at a cost.
Multiple Areas of Improvement
For some Manitoba businesses, changes will involve basic enhancements to facilities, buildings, structures and premises. Physical access improvements are the most perceptible and perhaps, the most overdue. However, the standard discusses a number of other less-visible areas for improvement - areas that will be more difficult to define.
The standard states that all barriers to information or communications must be addressed. Most businesses will not be able to implement changes to this area immediately since it will require an overall review of how they present and deliver their goods, services and information. It is one thing to update your printed marketing materials or website as needed in order to be more compliant. But how will businesses respond to the needs of customers that have sight or hearing impairments? One business owner stated that he serves a number of vision-impaired customers each week, but he had never considered that his website did not offer any supports for the visually impaired.
Larger companies will have the resources to implement Braille support and auditory devices as required, while others may choose to employ workers who can offer sign language support. However, many small businesses, which make up more than 95% of Manitoba's business sector 2, will need to closely examine their resources if they plan to implement any communication changes over and above traditional print and electronic media.
Once a thorough review is complete and policies are put in force, business owners will need to document their established practices, provide documentation on request (if they employ 20 or more staff), and to post accessibility policies prominently on their applicable premises and websites. Requirements such as these may require employers to initiate both infrastructure and staffing changes.
Employment and Social Development Canada states, "Because of its complexity, there is no single, harmonized "operational" definition of disability across federal programs" 3. For some, a disability can be a temporary state, such as an illness that can be treated, or a temporary impairment that may result from an accident. For others, a disability is permanent, such as a long-term mobility, hearing or sight impairment. For others, a disability can also be unseen - such as a mental illness or a neurological impairment.
Due to the broad range of disabilities, smart employers instruct their staff to be sensitive to the individual needs of a given customer and to vary the approach based on the given situation. This is sensible advice and most businesses I spoke with agreed that it was a logical way of ensuring customer satisfaction. However some business owners are becoming concerned that the new standard will impose further rules on an already acceptable approach to accessibility issues.
Issues of Interpretation
A majority of Manitoban business continue to support the review and implementation of improved access for those with disabilities. And though the new standard is being welcomed as a logical step, certain portions of the text do leave a number of areas open to discussion. It is these grey areas that have some businesses expressing concern about their ability to adequately interpret the new policies and to successfully implement any required changes.
For example, section 4(2) of the standard asks businesses to review their existing customer service policies and to seek to remove existing barriers that may prevent a disable person from reasonably obtaining, using or benefiting from its goods or services. With many businesses in Manitoba already actively engaged in this approach, it has some asking "What more can I possibly do that I am not already doing?" For some businesses, the answer may be as simple as reaching out to their customers and asking "Are we doing enough, and what can we do better?"
The act's emphasis on having businesses "make reasonable efforts" also leaves a fair bit of room for interpretation. With the standard not being restricted to traditional brick and mortar establishments, will hundreds of mobile food trucks across the province be asked to install portable wheelchair ramps for their daily lunch stops? Or will they be allowed to continue with their more realistic current policy of disembarking their vehicle as needed when serving a customer who uses a wheelchair? When the new standard was announced, I spoke about it with a number of food truck owners over a sunny lunch hour on Broadway Ave. in Winnipeg. All agreed that their current approach was both effective and practical. Several did wonder though if further changes would be expected of them over the next 36 months as members of the disabled community continue to offer their feedback on the issue.
Skirting the Standard
Section 4(2)(d) of the standard states that "if an existing barrier cannot be reasonably removed, seek to ensure that persons who are disabled by the barrier are provided access to the good or service by alternate means, whether on a temporary or permanent basis...". Some have suggested this section and the inclusion of the words "alternate" and "temporary" may diminish the potential of the standard by providing apathetic businesses with the means to continually skirt the compliancy issue.
For example, there is nothing to prevent a business owner from stating "we're always happy to offer our customers an alternate way, but no one is asking us". Since the standard offers no prescribed approach for logging customer queries, how can anyone be sure that their comments, suggestions or complaints are being recorded and dealt with adequately? The lack of an official approach to dealing with customer feedback will make it difficult to impose any changes against a non-compliant business owner. The onus may end up being on the customer to make their voice heard via social media and other channels.
Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says that organizations in Manitoba will have differing timelines to implement and achieve the new standard. The provincial Government will need to comply within one year while public-sector groups will be given two years to meet the same standards. Private and non-profit organizations, which represent the largest number of groups in the province, will be given three years.
That means many of us on both sides of the story will be able to contribute our knowledge and understanding of the issue and to offer feedback that will result in positive change for Manitoba. At the very least, the new Customer Service Accessibility Standard will compel Manitoba businesses to review their existing policies and to ask if they are really doing enough to support the needs of customers with a disability.
Article by Gerald Adams, Digital Media and Online Services Director at CanPay Software Inc, providers of Canadian payroll and HR software solutions for more than 30 years, and makers of eNETEmployer, a unique web-based Payroll, HR and Employee Scheduling solution. Visit www.enetemployer.com today for your Free trial.
1 The Accessibility for Manitobans Act - http://www.accessibilitymb.ca/pdf/accessibility_for_manitobans_act.pdf
2 Key Small Business Statistics - August 2013 - https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/061.nsf/eng/02804.html
3 Federal Disability Reference Guide - http://www.esdc.gc.ca/eng/disability/arc/reference_guide.shtml