See Hear

BBC Two’s See Hear programme has carried out a survey which found that many high street premises could be failing to live up to their obligations to help deaf customers.

One company, the hamburger chain McDonald’s, had so little awareness of the needs of deaf customers that they suggested Braille and large picture menus would be of help.

Even where special facilities are provided, staff do not know how to operate them, or the equipment has not been maintained.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, stores are required to make “reasonable adjustments” for the needs of deaf and disabled customers.

To meet their obligations, many high street stores are equipped with hearing induction loops – an electronic wiring system which helps hearing aid users to hear more clearly.

But in 13 out of 17 stores visited either there was no loop installed, or the loop was not working properly.

In two branches of Marks and Spencer staff were filmed saying they had no induction loop in the store – despite the company’s claims that every store’s customer service desk is fitted with an induction loop.

At Starbucks there was no induction loop. Starbucks responded saying that, due to the noisy environment of their cafes, they decided not to install induction loops and instead rely on a “pen and paper system”.

This comes despite their reputation as a top diversity employer. Their US website claims to “embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business”, and they recently compiled a Best practice guide to “Creating a Deaf Friendly Working Environment”.

Natalie Salmon of the DRC (Disability Rights Commission) said: “Offering them pen and paper really is a last resort.”

Staff at Specsavers Hearcare, which sells hearing aids as well as glasses, said they had no hearing induction loop in the store when we visited them.

McDonald’s said loops did not work well in their restaurants because the large amount of stainless steel equipment in the kitchens caused interference, but stated: “In order to communicate successfully with our deaf and hard of hearing customers we have a Braille and large image led menu available in each restaurant.”

See Hear Producer William Mager said: “One thing that struck us about the research was the attitude of staff in the branches we visited. They failed to offer alternative solutions to communication with our deaf researcher.

“A lot of these companies don’t seem to be thinking seriously about how they can make reasonable adjustments for deaf and hard of hearing customers.

“Induction loops aren’t the only solution – they could try video interpreting, basic deaf awareness training or even some basic sign.

“It makes no sense when you consider that there are approximately eight million deaf people out there, representing a huge and untapped market…”

See Hear, noon, Saturday 26 May 2007, BBC Two

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