Tips for Customer Service

Find out about interacting with persons with various types of disabilities, service animals, assistive devices and/or support persons, and what you need to know when talking to persons with disabilities over the phone.

Interacting with Students/Customers with Disabilities who use Service Animals

A service animal is any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to assist a person with a disability. Each animal is trained to perform various tasks and provide a range of services.

  • A guide dog serves as a travel aid for a person with vision loss.
  • A hearing or signal animal alerts a person with hearing loss when a sound occurs, such as a knock on the door or alarm.
  • Mobility assistance animals may carry, fetch, open doors, ring doorbells, activate elevator buttons, pull a wheelchair, steady a person while walking or help someone get up after a fall.
  • A seizure response animal warns a person of an impending seizure or provides aid during a seizure such as going for help or standing guard over the person.
  • Therapeutic assistance animals aid people with cognitive or psychological disabilities by bringing a phone to the person in the emergency, calling 911 or the suicide hotline, turning on the lights, fetching medication, barking for help or assisting a person with panic disorder coping in crowds.

When communicating and interacting with someone who uses a service animal, here are some things to remember:

  • Do not request that the owner leave the animal in a different location, such as outside of your office or classroom.
  • Avoid petting or talking to a service animal: this distracts the animal from its tasks.
  • Do not feed or offer treats to the animal.
  • Avoid deliberately startling the animal.
  • Not all service animals wear special collars or harnesses. If you are not sure and it is necessary that you verify, it is okay to ask the owner if it is a service animal.
  • Remember that the owner is responsible for maintaining control over the animal at all times. You are not responsible for cleaning up after it or feeding it. You may provide water if the owner requests it.

Interacting with Students/Customers with Disabilities who have Support Persons

A support person is someone either hired or chosen to help a person with a disability. A support person can be a personal support worker, a volunteer, a family member or spouse or a friend of the person with the disability. A support person in some cases does not necessarily need to have special training or qualifications. Under the customer service standard, universities must permit persons with disabilities to be accompanied and assisted by their support persons while accessing its goods or services.

Support persons may provide one or more types of assistance:

  • Transportation
  • Guiding a person with a vision loss
  • Adaptive communication (e.g., Intervenor for someone who is deaf-blind)
  • Interpretation (e.g., ASL/English interpreter, LSQ/French interpreter)
  • Note-taking, scribe or reading services (usually coordinated by disability or library services offices)
  • Personal care assistance
  • Support persons in the event of a seizure (e.g., protect from falls)
  • Interpret and speak on behalf of someone with a speech disability

When interacting and communicating with someone who has a support person, here are some things you can do:

  • A person with a disability may not always introduce his or her support person. If you are not sure, it is appropriate to ask, "Is this your interpreter or support person?"
  • Although it can feel a little awkward, speak to and look directly at the person with a disability even though the message may be coming from the support person.
  • Address the person appropriately: "What courses are you taking this year?" as opposed to "Can you ask him what courses he is taking this year?"
  • Remember that support persons, especially interpreters, tend to communicate everything to the person. Avoid engaging in "side" conversations with the interpreter, thinking these won't be conveyed to the person with the disability.
  • Plan for the presence of support persons, e.g., help facilitate the interpreting process by reserving seats of persons who are deaf and by allocating space near presenters for interpreters.
  • Where possible, provide written materials both to the person with the disability and the support person.
  • During event planning, note the location of washrooms that will accommodate persons with disabilities and their support persons.

Interacting with Students/Customers with Disabilities Who Use Assistive Devices

An assistive device is any device that is used, designed, made or adapted to assist people in performing a particular task. Assistive devices enable persons with disabilities to do everyday tasks such as moving, communicating, reading or lifting. Some persons with disabilities use personal assistive devices. Here are a few examples.

  • Wheelchairs
  • Canes
  • Walkers
  • Assistive listening devices (FM systems)
  • Laptops with screen-reading software or communicating capabilities
  • Smart phones (i.e. wireless handheld devices)
  • Hearing aids
  • Global positioning system (GPS) devices
  • Your university may also provide assistive devices such as loaner wheelchairs, stair lifts, FM systems, laptops or computer adaptive technology.

The following are some strategies for appropriately interacting and communicating with persons with disabilities who use assistive devices:

  • Consider the assistive device as an extension of the person's personal space: don't touch, lean on or move the device without permission.
  • If you have permission to move or touch the device, remember to:
    • Wait for and follow the person's instructions.
    • Don't move the device out of the person's reach. If this can't be avoided, be sure to move the device back within the person's reach when requested.
    • In the case of a person in a wheelchair, confirm that the person is ready to move.
    • Describe what you are going to do before you do it.
  • When hosting or planning an event, locate and describe accessible features in the immediate environment, like automatic doors or accessible washrooms.
  • When asked, agree to use an assistive device (such as an assistive listening device), being sure to ask for directions on its proper use.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers with Vision Disabilities

Vision disabilities reduce one's ability to see clearly. Very few people are totally blind. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who go to the CNIB have some degree of vision. Many have limited vision such as tunnel vision, where a person has a loss of peripheral or side vision, or a lack of central vision, which means they cannot see straight ahead. Some can see the outline of objects while others can see the direction of light. Vision disabilities can restrict your customers' abilities to read signs, locate landmarks or see hazards. In some cases, it may be difficult to tell if a person has a vision disability. Others may use a guide dog or white cane.

Here are some tips on serving customers with vision disabilities:

  • Immediately greet people when they enter a room or a service area. This allows you to let them know you are present and ready to assist. It also eliminates uncomfortable silences.
  • Introduce yourself using your name and/or position, especially if you are wearing a name badge containing this information.
  • Address people by name when possible. This is especially important in crowded areas.
  • Speak directly to people who are blind or visually impaired, not through a companion, guide, or other individual.
  • Speak normally and clearly.
  • Feel free to use words that refer to vision during the course of conversations. Vision-oriented words such as look, see, and watching TV are a part of everyday verbal communication. The words blind and visually impaired are also acceptable in conversation.
  • Feel free to use visually descriptive language. Making reference to colors, patterns, designs, and shapes is perfectly acceptable.
  • Never touch your customer without asking permission, unless it's an emergency.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until you receive permission.
  • Guide people who request assistance by allowing them to take your arm just above the elbow when your arm is bent. Walk ahead of the person you are guiding. Never grab a person by the arm and push him/her forward.
  • Relax and walk at a comfortable, normal pace. Stay one step ahead of the person you are guiding, except at the top and bottom of stairs and to cross streets. At these places, pause and stand alongside the person.
  • Don't touch or address service animals – they are working and have to pay attention at all times.
  • Never take hold of a white cane.
  • Do not leave your customer standing in "free space." Show them to a chair, or guide them to a comfortable location.
  • Be precise and thorough when you describe individuals, places, or things. Don't leave things out or change a description because you think it is unimportant or unpleasant. It is also important to refer to specific people or items by name or title instead of general terms like "you", "they" or "this."
  • Don't walk away without saying good-bye. Indicate the end of a conversation to avoid the embarrassment of having them continue speaking when no one is actually there.
  • Be calm and clear about what to do if you see a person who is blind or visually impaired about to encounter a dangerous situation. For example, if a person who is blind is about to bump into a stanchion in a hotel lobby, calmly and firmly call out, "Wait there for a moment; there is a pole in front of you."
  • When giving directions for how to get from one place to another:
    • Avoid gestures – pointing, looking in the direction referred to
    • Always refer to a specific direction –right or left as it applies to the person you're advising. What is on your right is on the left of the person facing you.
    • Indicate the approximate distance as well as the direction to a requested location.
    • Give the approximate number of streets to be crossed to reach the destination. Even if your estimate is off by a block or two, it will give the person a sense of when to stop and ask someone else for further directions in case she or he has overshot the mark.
    • Keep in mind that both sounds and scents can be "landmarks." In a food hall, for example, the unmistakable smell of popcorn could be a useful landmark for someone headed in that direction. With all the coffee houses on streets in villages, towns, and cities, the scent of freshly brewed coffee may also be a helpful guidepost. E.g. "The escalator is directly in front of you about 10 feet away. You'll hear it as you approach. When you reach the next floor, make a sharp u-turn to the right. Walk along the wall to your left past 4 doors. The office you want is the fifth door.
  • Don't just assume the individual can't see you.
  • Be patient. Things may take a little longer.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

People who have hearing loss may be deaf or hard of hearing. Like other disabilities, hearing loss has a wide variety of degrees. Remember, customers who are deaf or hard of hearing may require assistive devices when communicating.

Here are some tips on serving customers who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Always ask how you can help.
  • Don't shout. Shouting may only create sound distortions when amplified through the hearing aid.
  • Attract the customer's attention before speaking. The best way is a gentle touch on the shoulder or gently waving your hand.
  • Make sure you are in a well-lighted area where your customer can see your face.
  • Look at and speak directly to your customer. Address your customer, not their interpreter.
  • If necessary, ask if another method of communicating would be easier, for example a pen and paper.
  • Don't put your hands in front of your face when speaking.
  • Be clear and precise when giving directions, and repeat or rephrase if necessary. Make sure you have been understood.
  • Don't touch or address service animals – they are working and have to pay attention at all times.
  • Any personal (e.g., financial) matters should be discussed in a private room to avoid other people overhearing.
  • Be patient. Communication for people who are deaf may be different because their first language may not be English. It may be American Sign Language (ASL).
  • If the person uses a hearing aid, try to speak in an area with few competing sounds.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers who are Deaf/Blind

A person who is deaf-blind cannot see or hear to some extent. This results in greater difficulties in accessing information and managing daily activities. Most people who are deaf-blind will be accompanied by an intervenor, a professional who helps with communicating.

Intervenors are trained in special sign language that involves touching the hands of the client in a two-hand, manual alphabet or finger spelling, and may guide and interpret for their client.

Here are some tips on serving customers who are deaf-blind:

  • Don't assume what a person can or cannot do. Some people who are deaf-blind have some sight or hearing, while others have neither.
  • A customer who is deaf-blind is likely to explain to you how to communicate with them or give you an assistance card or a note explaining how to communicate with them.
  • Speak directly to your customer as you normally would, not to the intervenor.
  • Identify yourself to the intervenor when you approach your customer who is deaf-blind.
  • Don't touch or address service animals – they are working and have to pay attention at all times.
  • Never touch a person who is deaf-blind suddenly or without permission unless it's an emergency.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers with Physical Disabilities

There are many types and degrees of physical disabilities, and not all require a wheelchair. People who have arthritis, heart or lung conditions or amputations may also have difficulty with moving, standing or sitting. It may be difficult to identify a person with a physical disability.

Here are some tips on serving customers who have physical disabilities:

  • Speak normally and directly to your customer. Don't speak to someone who is with them.
  • People with physical disabilities often have their own ways of doing things. Ask before you help.
  • Be patient. Customers will identify their needs to you.
  • Don't touch assistive devices, including wheelchairs, unnecessarily unless it's an emergency.
  • Provide your customer with information about accessible features of the immediate environment (automatic doors, accessible washrooms, etc.).
  • Remove obstacles and rearrange furniture to ensure clear passage.
  • It is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.
  • Never patronize people by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Leaning or hanging on a person's wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
  • Speak directly to the person, not to someone who is nearby as-if the wheelchair user did not exist.
  • If your conversation lasts more than a few minutes, consider sitting down, etc. to get yourself on the same eye-level
  • When giving directions, think abut things like travel distance, location of curbcuts and ramps, weather conditions and physical obstacles that may hinder their travel.
  • When a person "transfers" out of the wheelchair to a chair, pew, car, toilet or bed, do not move the wheelchair out of reach. If you think it would be best to move it for some reason, ask the person about the best option for them.
  • It is OK to use expressions like "running along" or "let's go for a walk." It is likely they express the idea of moving along in exactly the same way.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers with Speech or Language Impairments

Some people have problems communicating. It could be the result of cerebral palsy, hearing loss, or another condition that makes it difficult to pronounce words, causes slurring or stuttering, or not being able to express oneself or understand written or spoken language. Some people who have severe difficulties may use communication boards or other assistive devices.

Here are some tips on serving customers with speech or language impairments:

  • Just because a person has one disability doesn't mean they have another. For example, if a customer has difficulty speaking; don't assume they have an intellectual or developmental disability as well.
  • Move away from a noisy source and try to find a quiet environment for communicating with the person.
  • If you are able, ask questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no'.
  • Be patient and polite, and give your customer whatever time he/she needs to get his/her point across.
  • Don't interrupt or finish your customer's sentences. Wait for them to finish.
  • Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.
  • Patience, respect and a willingness to find a way to communicate are your best tools.
  • People who have speech disabilities may use a variety of ways to communicate. The individual may choose to use American Sign Language, write, speak, use a communication device, or a combination of methods. Find out the person's preferred method and use it.
  • If the person with a speech disability has a companion or attendant, talk directly to the person. Do not ask the companion about the person.
  • When you have difficulty conversing on the telephone with the person, suggest the use of a speech-to-speech relay service so that a trained professional can help you communicate with the person. Either you or the person can initiate the call free of charge via the relay service.
  • If the person uses a communication device, make sure it is within his or her reach. If there are instructions visible for communicating with the person, take a moment to read them.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers with Mental Health Disabilities

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians are likely to experience a diagnosable mental illness. People with mental health disabilities look like anyone else. You won't know that your customer has a mental health disability unless you're informed of it. And usually it will not affect your customer service at all. But if someone is experiencing difficulty in controlling their symptoms or is in a crisis, you may need to help out. Be calm and professional and let your customer tell you how you can best help.

Here are some tips on serving customers who have mental health disabilities:

  • Treat a person with a mental health disability with the same respect and consideration you have for everyone else.
  • Be confident and reassuring. Listen carefully and work with your customer to meet their needs.
  • If someone appears to be in a crisis, ask them to tell you the best way to help.
  • Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to be violent than people without psychiatric disabilities; this is a myth.
  • Do not assume that they necessarily need any extra assistance or different treatment.
  • Treat people as individuals. Do not make assumptions based on experiences you have had with other people.
  • Do not assume that all people take or should take medication.
  • Do not assume that they do not know what is best for them, or have poor judgment.
  • If someone with a mental health disability gets upset, ask calmly if there is anything you can do to help and then respect their wishes.
  • Look at them, and talk directly to them instead of talking about them to parents or helpers who might be with them, don't act as if they're not there.
  • Don't let a person's disability be an excuse for inappropriate behavior, letting people off the hook does not show respect.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities may have difficulty doing many things most of us take for granted. These disabilities can mildly or profoundly limit one's ability to learn. You may not be able to know that someone has this disability unless you are told, or you notice the way people act, ask questions or use body language. An example is a person with Down Syndrome. As much as possible, treat your customers with an intellectual or developmental disability like anyone else. They may understand more than you think, and they will appreciate you treating them with respect.

Here are some tips on serving customers who have an intellectual or developmental disability:

  • Don't assume what a person can or cannot do.
  • Use plain language and speak in short sentences.
  • Make sure your customer understands what you've said.
  • If you can't understand what's being said, don't pretend. Just ask again.
  • Provide one piece of information at a time.
  • Be supportive and patient.
  • Speak directly to your customer, not to their companion or attendant.

Tips on Serving Students/Customers who have Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities can result in a host of different communications difficulties for people. They can be subtle, as in having difficulty reading, or more pronounced, but they can interfere with your customer's ability to receive, express or process information. You may not be able to know that someone has one of these disabilities unless you are told, or you notice the way people act, ask questions or use body language.

Here are some tips on serving customers with learning disabilities:

  • Patience and a willingness to find a way to communicate are your best tools.
  • When you know that someone with a learning disability needs help, ask how you can best help.
  • Speak normally and clearly, and directly to your customer.
  • Take some time – people with some kinds of learning disabilities may take a little longer to understand and respond.
  • Try to find ways to provide information in a way that works best for them. For example, have a paper and pen handy.
  • Be prepared to explain any materials your provide for your customers.

What you need to know when talking to customers with disabilities over the phone

  • Speak normally, clearly and directly.
  • Don't worry about how their voice sounds. Concentrate on what's being said.
  • Be patient, don't interrupt and don't finish your customer's sentences. Give your customer time to explain him/herself.
  • Don't try to guess what your customer is saying. If you don't understand, don't pretend. Just ask again.
  • If you're not certain what was said, just repeat or rephrase what you've heard.
  • If a telephone customer is using an interpreter or a TTY line (Teletypwriter – type of telephone that sends typed messages across phone lines), just speak normally to the customer, not to the interpreter.
  • A standard phone user can place calls to a TTY line using the Relay Service – 1-800-855-0511; Free for local calls, standard long distance charges apply.

If your customer has great difficulty communicating, make arrangements to call back when it's convenient to speak with someone else.