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Voice recognition telephone systems

Voice recognition systems are one of the biggest barriers to phone communication for people who stammer. They may involve a breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments. There should be an option for prompt transfer to a real person. Peter Aldous MP asked a parliamentary question on this in November 2016. For a summary on accessibility for customers who stammer, see Making services accessible.

Telephone systems which understand speech are becoming increasingly common. However, voice recognition software is unlikely to understand a person with a significant stammer or other speech difficulty. Accordingly there needs to be an option to get through promptly to a real person if the computerised system cannot cope.

A reasonable adjustment might be - I suggest - an option to speak to a real person given either in the initial menu, or the first time the computer fails to hear or understand the caller.

The option to speak to a person should of course be available through pressing a key, rather than being invited to say for example 'operator', which the person who stammers may be unable to do.

One of the 'top tips' in an Ofcom document on call centres is that an option of speaking to an operator should be included in the initial menu. See Disabled customers and call centres (link to ofcom.org.uk).

Possible alternative adjustments:

  • saying the caller can simply hold to be transferred (promptly) to an operator; or
  • allowing the caller to select an option by pressing a particular key as an alternative to saying something.

Note that it is not enough to give text access (below), eg a textphone number to call.

Case studies

Case study: A woman who stammers phoned her local hospital's switchboard number, to speak to a friend who was a patient. The hospital had converted its system to voice recognition. She was asked to say the name of the person or ward she wanted to contact, or say 'operator' to speak to an operator. She was unable to say any of this and waited till the computer spoke again to see if there would be a push-button option, but there was not. She put the phone down, unable to get through.

Case study: Someone who stammers tried to book a train ticket by phone. The system used voice recognition. He had trouble with b's and could not say 'book'. He was switched to a real person only after failing about a dozen times to be understood by the computer.
(Clearly this is too long: it should be possible to get through to a real person much more quickly.)

Case study: A person phoned a call centre to check that a letter sent by recorded delivery had arrived okay. He was required to read out a series of letters and numbers from his receipt. It took several tries before he managed to get the computer to recognise what he said. (Some who stammer would not succeed at all.)
See Say it again, says telephone Sam (link to BSA website).

Normally, the solution would be to build in the choice to speak to a real person. However, exceptionally it may be possible to make special arrangements for an individual who stammers:

Case study: A school installed a new system for recording absence. This asked for the parent's name, child's name, class and reason. A parent with a stammer emailed the school and explained the difficulties she experienced. The school agreed to let her email the absence officer direct.

Text access is not enough

Businesses and public bodies sometimes give a textphone number, so that callers can use a textphone or similar computer facilities (see Next Generation Text Service) to have a typed conversation. An organisation which thinks mainly of people with hearing impairments and perhaps others who are really unable to speak may believe they have then taken sufficient steps to make the service accessible for those with communication impairments.

However the most basic problem with this is that people who stammer commonly expect to be able to have a spoken phone conversation with a service provider like anyone else, albeit it can take a bit longer. Accordingly as a rule people who stammer will no more be aware of, or used to trying to get to grips with, textphone technology than any other member of the public. In any event, someone who stammers should not be deprived by gate-keeping automated systems of having a spoken conversation in the same way as anyone else.

From a legal point of view, that is backed up by the Equality Act duty to make reasonable adjustments. It can be strongly argued that this duty requires service providers (and bodies exercising a public function) to take reasonable steps to allow people who stammer to be allowed to use speech in telephone calls like other people, rather than typing. Case law and the statutory Code of Practice on services, public functions and associations indicate that it is not a matter of services being 'just about being accessible', but of providing access as close as reasonably possible to that enjoyed by non-disabled individuals: see Access to service should be as close as possible to that enjoyed by others.

This applies not just to stammering of course but to others whose communication impairment places them in a similar position and generally use speech.

As well as the reasonable adjustment duty, indirect discrimination and - though less important - for public bodies the public sector equality duty could also apply.

Parliamentary question, November 2016

This issue was raised in a written question by Peter Aldous MP, but the Minister failed to answer the question. Furthermore, precisely what phone arrangements companies and public bodies offer indeed is a commerial decision, but legally the Equality Act requires that they take reasonable steps to make the phone arrangements accessible.

Q Asked by Peter Aldous (Waveney)
Asked on: 21 November 2016
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Telephone Services: Speech and Language Disorders 53944
To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with reference to the finding of the website stammeringlaw.org.uk on voice recognition systems and duties on companies to make reasonable adjustments, published on 25 September 2012, what statutory requirements there are for companies that use computer answering systems to ensure that those with stammering and other communication needs are able to speak to a real person.
A Answered by: Matt Hancock Answered on: 30 November 2016
The use of an automated answering service is a commercial decision. However many companies offer alternative methods of contact to assist callers who encounter difficulties when using an automated answering service.
www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-11-21/53944/

The present web page as is was in September 2012 is available here.


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Last updated 19th December, 2016