Elizabeth Bates has spent much of her career working within organisations that support people in vulnerable circumstances.
She is the former CEO of Deafblind UK, a national charity helping people with sight and hearing loss live the lives they want, and previously worked for Cancer Research UK as their strategic partnership lead – working with the professionals who provide care to cancer patients.
Prior to working in the third sector, Elizabeth worked within the NHS, supporting a wide range of people with mental health issues and learning difficulties.
We caught up with Elizabeth to learn more about the difficulties faced by people in vulnerable circumstances, and to hear her thoughts as to whether utilities and financial services providers could do more to simplify their lives.
How well do you feel utilities and financial services companies serve people in vulnerable circumstances?
I think it’s very hit and miss. From the perspective of Deafblind people I would say pretty poorly.
Thinking back to my time at the charity, many of our members really struggled when it came to dealing with those service providers – and with local authorities.
It’s because of the move to digital and the dependency now on it; they tend to insist everything is done online and have removed access by phone in some instances.
For some people, particularly those with communication difficulties, digital simplifies interactions.
But for those – particularly elderly people – who don’t have access to it or struggle with continually changing technology, it’s a clear barrier for them to engage with organisations and access information.
The onus should be on those companies to work with the customer, and perhaps work with organisations like Deafblind UK, Cancer Research UK, and other charities to invest in programmes that make digital a viable channel for them to engage.
From my time at the NHS, I know there’s an expectation amongst service providers that customers with disabilities or communication needs have a support person assisting them. Sometimes they do, but this is not always the case.
Expectations like this prevent these customers from maintaining their independence.
In many cases, service providers don’t provide appropriate support to enable people to make decisions for themselves or meet their communication needs.
Have you noticed any changes in the way companies serve people in vulnerable circumstances?
One thing that particularly frustrates me is that these organisations often put forward changes without actually talking to the people it will impact.
It’s only once those changes are made and problems begin to arise that engagement happens, so it’s always firefighting; and it’s the customer that is put at risk because changes are being made without any real consideration over their needs.
Organisations consistently fail to appreciate that ‘disability’ comes in many guises and there is not a one size fits all solution.
What one change would you like to see utilities and financial services companies make to better serve priority customers?
What would be really helpful would to be have one platform from which priority customers could engage with all their service providers, across sectors.
It would be particularly beneficial for Deafblind people. Different websites have different accessibility standards. All websites are supposed to be accessible, but the quality of accessibility varies.
Someone might have a current account with one bank and a savings account with another. They might have no problem accessing information online for their current account, but really struggle with the other website.
If you had one single platform, with all those accessibility capabilities built in, from which customers could engage with their bank, their water supplier and so on, that would really simplify matters.
Could you tell us a bit more about the digital inclusion project you ran at Deafblind UK?
Yes, so we received some funding from the national lottery to upskill Deafblind people on technology. Teaching them basic skills and helping them to get the most from their laptops, mobile and tablet devices using apps that help with accessibility – like screen readers.
Then we moved onto peer support. We trained up some of our more digitally aware Deafblind members who had an aptitude for technology and we skilled them up to become digital champions.
They would then pass on their knowledge and help other members get to grips with digital. It was a really successful way of driving inclusion.
The charity is now working with technology accessibility companies to help ensure their products are inclusive to people with dual sight and hearing loss. Solutions typically exist to help either people with loss of hearing or loss of sight – rarely both.
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