Accessibility and Trauma Informed Soft Skills and Consumer Policy

I’ve witnessed and had many experiences since becoming disabled that are a testament to the fact that accessibly built environments and facilities can mean little without the staff training to back them up. Not only do accessibly informed policies help consumers, but they can also be compassionate to employees, providing them with options to protect themselves emotionally through confrontations.

As a customer service worker, you have an immense ability to affect your communities, purely based on the number of people you interact with throughout a working day. With that, comes immense responsibility to navigate interactions with compassion, self-awareness, and cognitive empathy.

Let's focus on the cognitive empathy portion, as this is the part most easily lost when we're feeling stressed, tired, or impatient. Because it is based in critical thinking, it is also easy to develop a step-by-step process to employ cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy can be especially useful when managing relations with those with dementia, autism, brain injuries, C-PTSD, BPD, and even those who just haven't received enough sleep lately ( - new parents, I got you). Let’s look at some different examples, and responses to them that are functionally trauma informed and accessibly-minded.

  1. When giving an instruction, and being asked to clarify:

    1. *Note, the request to clarify may not be cut and dry - This could also be in the form of an off-hand comment about the situation not making sense, or an incredulous remark, "Ridiculous! Unbelievable!" While customer service workers tend to be overly-practiced at it, and in some cases desensitized to it, not everyone can communicate effectively when they perceive a confrontation.

    2. We're going to talk about how to empower employees so they don't have to resort to desensitization below - Afterall, desensitization and offensive / defensive posturing are trauma responses in themselves.

    1. State the instruction again, politely and *in different words.*

    2. Rehearse 2 or 3 options so they are easy to recall when needed.

    3. For example:

      1. We need a copy of the company's brochure to be able to price match.

      2. Do you have a copy of the company's flyer in your email so I can verify?

      3.  What company did you see that price advertised with? I'm going to do a quick google search just to confirm the price.

    4. If the confusion is related to a store policy, you can say "I totally understand your confusion / the inconvenience / etc., but unfortunately that policy is set by corporate. I'm being made to follow it just like our customers are. I really do understand it's inconvenient, but we'll be so happy to help you *in the applicable altered situation*."

    5. This is a wonderful de-escalation tactic, as it not only makes the customer feel understood and equitable to you, but also removes any blame you had shouldered, and places it onto a vague someone else who is not present. (You will see this same technique used often in care homes, as it is especially useful when working with dementia patients.)

  1. Make sure your policies are not arbitrary. (This one is especially helpful for any neurodivergent members of our community).

    1. As an example that I always find giggle-worthy, many pet stores require a water sample if a customer intends to return a sick or deceased fish. However, there is no way to verify that a water sample brought in is from the aquarium a fish died in, or that the parameters at the time of return are the same as the time of the fish’s death. Someone could easily bring in a sample of remineralized water, and the store would have no way of verifying. This is an arbitrary policy.

    2. A better solution would be for stores to provide their staff, and therefore their customers, with appropriate education on aquarium cycling, the nitrogen cycle, stocking and at-home water testing to prevent frequent returns in the first place.

  1. Give your staff the autonomy to weigh value.

    1. For instance, is refusing to price match a $60 product by $2 worth depleting your staff's emotional capacity and time resources, and potentially alienating a customer?

    2. In addition to inspiring my price match example, Home Depot does a magical job of employing staff autonomy and trust, by allowing every employee a discount allowance that they can use up without asking for manager approval. At its core, this gives employees the power to protect themselves emotionally as they feel necessary. It's a fabulously trauma-informed policy from a staff and customer stand point.

  1. Ensure you have policies in place for any consumers who need assistance, whether this be lifting, navigating, counting, etc.

    1. For instance:

      1. What requires a two-person lift? What easily employable criteria can your staff utilize on the fly to determine this? If a single staff member is manning the floor themselves, and they are unable to lift above a certain weight limit, what assistive equipment has been provided to mitigate this?

      2. Do you have a list of which staff members can act as interpreters for languages, including ASL? 

      3. Have your first aid-certified staff members also been provided with basic training on communicating with children and neurodivergent individuals?

  1. Market sales, promotions and upsale opportunities in different formats. Having promotions available in only one format can leave many people out of the loop.

    1. A great example of this is phone companies - I cannot even count the number of times I have received a promotional call from a phone company, only to tell them that I will not retain any information given to me in an audible format that late in the day, and for them to tell me that this promotion is only available over the phone.

    2. You cannot claim to have a policy of inclusive customer interactions, when you are reserving sales and discounts only for people of certain capabilities.

  1. Stigma (including any of the “isms”)* does not belong in professional environments.

    1. If you’re in leadership, and your benefits will cover it, engage with an inclusivity counsellor who can help you identify if there are any areas in which you need to continue learning.

    2. Plan inclusion and accessibility workshops within your corporation’s team building activities.

    3. Provide tuition reimbursement for any courses related to inclusion, diversity, accessibility, reconciliation, systemic racism, traume-informed communications, etc.

  1. Retail and customer service environments can be very emotionally taxing, and it’s understandable that many employees are struggling with burn out considering the circus they are required to manage on a daily basis. However, allowing this to build up rather than providing corporate-level support can lead to well-meaning people being denied compassionate service at your store. Both employees and consumers deserve respect and to be protected within your organization’s operations.

    1. Develop an employee support and counseling program.

    2. Ensure that mental health and fitness services are available in your employee benefits.

  1. This last one is reserved for financial organizations, because they have got to be the worst culprit of anti-accessible policy.

    1. I am lucky to work with many earnest financial advisers who genuinely have a passion for education. However, in my time of being disabled, I have also come across many who will blatantly stop replying to me the moment my receiving disability income is mentioned.

    2. Whether a person is disabled and entirely supported by disability income, or they work and their income is supplemented by disability benefits, denying disabled people financial literacy and investment opportunities is counter-productive to any organization that deems itself to be accessible or socially supportive; it is equally counter productive for any capitalist society or organization. Financial literacy, as we should have learned through our current housing situation, is something that even our country’s leaders don’t appear to have enough of. The only way to improve our economy is by helping our communities to prosper. All members of our communities. If you’re someone who hasn’t already committed to this, you need to re-visit the “Stigmas,” section above…

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