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Telecoms companies do not do enough to tell users with disabilities what facilities are available for them, research by regulator Ofcom has found. The telecoms and media regulator conducted 'mystery shopper' tests and found UK networks lacking.

Mystery shoppers contacted providers on behalf of invented relatives with various disabilities, including blindness and visual impairment, deafness, and cognitive impairments.

Only just over a third of mystery shoppers were told of services for disabled customers, a figure which rose to 75 per cent on prompting. This is a poorer result than achieved in similar research in 2006, Ofcom said.

"Communications providers need to do more to publicise services that are available for disabled customers," said an Ofcom statement.

"Almost one in five of the mystery shopping enquiries on behalf of blind people resulted in the mystery shopper being told, at least initially, that there were no special services for disabled customers," said the Ofcom statement.

"The most commonly mentioned service for deaf customers was text relay," it said. "However this was only mentioned in 49 per cent of calls even after prompting (compared to 78 per cent in 2006)."

"For people with cognitive impairments or who were in hospital long term, relevant services such as third party account access or bill management were only mentioned spontaneously in 21 per cent of calls. One in five callers were told that there were no special services for disabled customers," it said.

Part of Ofcom's duty is to make sure that service providers operate systems that allow people with disabilities to use their services, it said. It also has a duty to ensure that those services are publicised so that they can be used.

Telecoms companies must provide certain services for disabled people, including free directory enquiries; alternative bill formats, such as braille; text relay services; and third party bill management for those who need help to manage their affairs.

Ofcom said that results from its mystery shopper tests did not improve when enquiries were submitted online.

"Of 105 email enquiries sent, only 70 per cent received a personal response," it said. "Thirty one did not receive a reply during the mystery shopping exercise. Surprisingly, replies to email enquiries generally contained less information than those given over the phone even though it would have been possible for the provider to spend time checking which services were available."

The report found that all the companies surveyed performed worse than they did in a similar 2006 study.

"The results were fairly poor across all the providers surveyed," said a summary of the study. "There were some slight improvements in spontaneous mentions of mandated service since we last carried out research of this kind. However, absolute levels of spontaneous mentions remain poor, and prompted mentions have fallen since 2006, in some cases by a large amount. All companies surveyed performed less well than in 2006 on prompted mentions."

The study also found that users were not told about the compulsory service that would necessarily most benefit them, and that mentions of multiple services that would enable them to choose appropriate ones were very rare.

"Although at least one service was mentioned 75 per cent of the time on average, this is not necessarily the service most likely to benefit that consumer, or all the services to which the disabled person would have been entitled – for example, priority fault repair might be suggested for a blind consumer, but not free directory enquiries," said the summary. "Spontaneous and prompted mentions of more than one service were very low: for three or more services, the average was 4 per cent spontaneous and 18 per cent prompted."

Ofcom said it had demanded that providers produce plans to show how they will improve their performance in telling disabled users what extra help they are entitled to.

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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