The Disabled Customer Experience


We often say that great customer experiences are about “doing best what matters most” to customers. In other words you need to find out what customers’ needs are, then meet or exceed them. One of the things that makes it difficult is that needs vary from customer to customer, and even from occasion to occasion, and your own way of thinking may not be a good predictor of other people’s requirements. When it comes to disabled customers this question becomes even more challenging, as organisations are often not equipped to understand how the experiences they create may fail to meet the needs of disabled customers, and may not always have the necessary knowledge or perspective to get it right.

TLF Research teamed up with Purple Tuesday to measure disabled customers’ perceptions of the experiences they receive, to show the impact that not designing for their needs has had during the pandemic, and to understand what we can all do about it. As we’ll show, failing to cater for the needs of disabled customers is not only a moral and legal failing, but a commercial one. It’s a missed opportunity, and this is the perfect time to do something about it.

What the data shows

At the beginning of the year, we turned to the TLF Research consumer panel to understand the “state of the nation” when it came to the disabled customer experience.

Difficulties are widespread

Around 1 in 3 of our panellists say that their day to day activities are limited as a result of a long term health problem or disability. Estimating the prevalence of disability is tricky, and you can get very different results based on which questions you ask [1], but this gives a sense of just how many customers may have needs which are not immediately obvious to your staff.

Disabled customers feel organisations can do more

54% of disabled people feel that organisations could do more to improve the experiences of disabled customers. The most common themes were around physical accessibility (e.g. ramps, wider aisles), providing help (e.g. reaching items from high shelves, carrying shopping to the car), and treating disabled customers with respect, patience, and understanding.

“Better access to premises, more hearing loops, more staff training about disabilities.”

Some organisations stand out

We also asked people if they could name an organisation which had stood out in the way they had dealt with them. Almost every sector of the economy was mentioned  by at least one person, and in total customers named 165 different organisations, but there were some clear stand out performers who came up again and again.

The 5 organisations below were each mentioned by more than 4% of those who named someone, with the NHS standing out as, by a distance, the most frequently named.

Pandemic and lockdown

The pandemic and preventative measures (such as lockdown, social distancing, and masks) has had a huge effect on all of us, but we know the impact has fallen disproportionately onto disabled people. We went back to our panellists to understand their experience during lockdown.

40% of disabled customers have experienced difficulties in interacting with organisations in person during the pandemic, with the main problem areas being communication (19%) and accessibility (18%).

A similar proportion have found that measures such as mask wearing and social distancing have made their lives more difficult, even though most of those affected still believe that those measures were a good idea in order to contain the spread of the virus.

The opportunity cost of accessibility

When it comes to interacting with organisations online, 1 in 3 customers have experienced difficulties during the pandemic, and in over half of those cases it led to the customer not spending money that they would otherwise have spent.

At an average of £165, that means that inaccessible websites may have cost UK businesses as much as £412 million[2] during the pandemic alone.

Inaccessible websites may have cost UK businesses as much as £412 million during the pandemic.

What's next

Designing the customer experience with disabled customers in mind is not only the right thing to do, it’s the business savvy thing to do if you want to make sure that you are catering to the needs of a significant minority of customers who are affected in one way or another.

In many cases a better experience for disabled customers is one that is better for all customers, whether that’s making your website easier to read, or your store layout more comfortable.

Improving the experience for disabled customers is a road that doesn’t have an end, things could always be better, but the striking thing that emerged from the responses to our survey is how big the effect of comparatively small changes could be.

Improved accessibility, awareness, empathy, and the confidence to deal with disabled customers empathetically and respectfully should be areas we can all strive to do better in. Purple Tuesday is a great opportunity to commit to try.

Interview with Mike Adams

Hi Mike, can you tell us a little more about Purple Tuesday and why it’s important? 

Purple Tuesday is a change programme for organisations of all sizes from all sectors to get involved in, with the common goal of improving the customer experience for disabled people 365 days a year. More than 5,000 organisations have so far used Purple Tuesday 2021 as an opportunity to make practical commitments to improve the disabled customer experience. 

How many people in the UK live with a disability? 

One in five people in the UK have a disability – which is a lot, but perhaps not surprising given disabled people make up the world’s largest minority group! 

That’s a lot of people. What’s the combined spending power of disabled people in the UK?  

The Purple Pound – the amount of money spent by disabled households annually – is estimated to be worth £274bn to UK businesses – a staggering sum, although 90% of firms don’t have a disability strategy to benefit from disabled people’s considerable spending power.  

That sounds like a missed opportunity. We understand you’re focusing on the online space this year. Why is that? 

More than one in three disabled people had difficulties using websites during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic – and your research has found that UK businesses lost out on almost £412 million during the pandemic because their websites are inaccessible to disabled people. 

That’s why we’re urging companies to review the experience of their disabled customers. Currently they’re missing out on valuable revenue opportunities, which could be fixed by simple changes to their websites. It makes commercial sense to be inclusive and accessible.  

That’s great that so many organisations are on board. Can you give us anymore names – and let us know what measures are being taken by who?  

More than 5,000 organisations are participating and there are many commitments. As we’re focusing on websites, let’s talk about eBay. It’s the world’s largest auction site – and today it’s sharing their ongoing efforts to improve the experiences of disabled buyers and sellers on their site and native apps. They are striving to ensure:

  • Keyboard-only access throughout the site to help people who prefer not to, or can’t, use a mouse. For instance, people with an injury or a motor impairment.

  • Alternative text for icons and images, which provide a textual description of images for people with sight loss.

  • Clearly labelled form elements to ensure they’re easily understood for those cognitive disabilities and those using assistive technology such as a screen reader. 

  • Adequate colour contrast across the site and apps for people with colour deficiencies or low-vision.

  • Issuing advice to eBay’s 300,000 small business sellers to avoid small font sizes, use plain but descriptive language, avoid light colours in text and keep animations simple or ditch them altogether.

What about offline activities? Is accessibility for disabled people no longer a problem there?

Great question. In person, accessibility for disabled people is an ongoing issue. It wasn’t just websites that caused frustration during the pandemic – 40% of disabled people had difficulties interacting with organisations in person. Almost one in five (19%) had problems with communication and the same proportion had problems with physical accessibility. And while most disabled people agreed with measures such as masks and social distancing, these did make life more difficult for 39%.

Comment from eBay

Eve Williams, Chief Marketing Officer, eBay UK has commented “eBay’s purpose as a business is to create economic opportunity for all, and accessibility is a fundamental pillar of that. We know that small changes can make a world of difference to people with a disability who use our platform, and we’re committed to continually adapting and evolving our site and native apps to ensure we’re catering to the needs of our customers. 

 The eBay customer base is incredibly diverse, with over 29 million active buyers in the UK alone and 300,000 small to medium sized businesses. Ensuring that we are showing up and representing our customers with disabilities, is not only aligned with our founding values, but is good business.” 

Top tips for embedding disability into leadership

Embedding Disability Inclusion into any organisation first starts with Leadership and here are some tips that Leaders can take to starting the journey:

  • Ensure the conversation is frequent and continual, it has to be part of everything you do so start with adding it to your monthly Board agenda and normalise the conversation

  • Support the conversation and promote your commitment to change by appointing an accountable board level Champion who bangs the drum and remove barriers to disability inclusion

  • Take the message in to your Supply Chain and procurement processes by advocating and encouraging disability inclusion within your supplier and partner organisations

  • Then leverage those partnerships by building your own campaign to promote disability inclusion and expedite the move towards accessible experiences for your staff and customers

  • And remember to make your commitment publicly visible by signing up to the Government’s Disability Confident scheme, elevating your reputation and commitment for change.

[1] This ONS article gives a good summary:

[2] Based on 13,084,000 disabled UK adults 16+ (ONS Population Estimates: 14.1m disabled people minus 1,016 disabled children under 16). Average amount unspent online due to inaccessible websites: £31.46 per person. Total unspent online: £411,622,640

Mike Adams