Guest post by Dr Yvette Maker and Prof Jeannie Paterson, University of Melbourne

Service providers’ poor conduct towards consumers with cognitive disabilities has been in the spotlight in recent months, with particularly troubling accounts emerging from the Royal Commission into Banking, the Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria and the Essential Services Commission.

Legislation and guidelines offer some remedies for people who are experiencing financial hardship, or who have been subject to unconscionable conduct or other improper practices. These protections, while important, do not necessarily assist people with cognitive disabilities to find and sign up for the services they want and need. The best solution is not relief when something goes wrong, but better front-end processes in the first place.

In our research, we have focused on this ‘facilitative’ approach to contracting and consumer transactions for people with cognitive disabilities; this may include people who have difficulties (or perceived difficulties) with learning, concentrating on, processing, remembering, or communicating information, and/or with decision-making. Ensuring that people with disabilities can engage with providers and enter contracts is a matter of human rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities affirms that all people are entitled to equal recognition before the law. Under the Convention, a lack of decision-making skills or experience is an unacceptable reason to prevent people making their own decisions and having their legal capacity recognised. Recognition of legal capacity means people disabilities can make their own decisions (including legal decisions) on the basis of what they want and need, including consumer decisions such as entering a contract.

At present, the processes for finding, signing up for, and solving problems with services – including essential services like utilities and phone and internet services – have not been designed with people with cognitive disabilities in mind. This means people often don’t end up with the right products or services, or the information and assistance they require to make decisions and solve problems, including information and support online. Providers’ websites are cluttered and confusing, and it can be difficult to find clear information and effective support online.

We have worked with consumers with cognitive disabilities and their representative organisations to identify the key sticking points they experience and devise solutions that would improve their access to information and support when signing up for, or addressing problems with, essential services. We tested a range of options with people with cognitive disabilities and based our recommendations on what they said they need and want, along with existing research and human rights principles.

Improving access and support for everyone requires change across the community – among business (in terms of improving their processes and practices), disability and mental health services, consumer advocates and community legal centres (in terms of having capacity and information needed to support their clients), and individuals, families and carers who often provide support or assistance to people with cognitive disabilities.

However, problems are particularly apparent at the physical and virtual shopfront. Salespeople need disability and mental health awareness training; billing, hardship and complaints processes should be redesigned to cater to all consumers, including providing support for those consumers who may find access, communication, reading or decision-making difficult without support. It should be easier for consumers to list and include trusted supporters in sales and support conversations. Information and products and services, and individuals’ consumer rights, should be provided in multiple, accessible formats including Easy English and video. Websites should be designed in consultation with people with disabilities, following established principles for cognitive accessibility like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

We have released two sets of resources to inform and support these changes.

In Improving Access and Support for Consumers with Cognitive Disabilities: A Guide for Retailers, developed in conjunction with seven members of the Thriving Communities Partnership, weoutline a range of simple steps to improve the provision of non-discriminatory, accessible information, assistance or support.

This includes, for example, making the sales team aware they may need to slow down and give information in small chunks; providing information in accessible formats like Easy English or video; and developing an easy process for including a supporter in the conversation or listing them on a customer’s account. The guide is supported by a short ‘Top Five Tips’ sheet to assist staff and managers to implement the guidelines.

The Thanks a Bundle project (funded via the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) 2017-18 Grants Program) focused on the accessibility of online information and sales materials of phone and internet companies.

Our report for providers includes a set of recommendations to assist service providers to improve and clarify their web content. These include recommendations for making webpages easy to read and navigate, offering jargon-free and informative product comparisons, and making critical information and assistance easy to find.

The accompanying toolkit includes four Easy English templates to support providers to  develop accessible information for consumers about things they need to know at key points in the process:

  • when they are shopping for a service;
  • when they are paying for a service;
  • when they are experiencing financial hardship; and
  • when they are having a problem with a device or service.

The toolkit and recommendations were developed in consultation with People with Disability Australia (PWDA) and the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC), with support from the Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS).

While the resources are focused on improvements for consumers with cognitive disabilities, better sales and support processes are likely to benefit a wide range of consumers in light of the overwhelming complexity of information and contracts relating to many essential services, from banking to mobile phones to electricity and gas.