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Customer Communications

Communication is key

“Do you have a vacant room with two beds?” “What are your lunch specials today?” “Where is the nearest drug store?”

Communicating successfully with customers is an essential part of doing business, and you probably work hard to have good communication with your customers. But, when dealing with customers who are blind or have low vision, customers who are deaf or hard of hearing, or customers who have disabilities that impair speech, you may be uncomfortable or are not sure what to do. We’ll try to provide some answers.

Communicating effectively

Under the ADA, you are expected to communicate effectively with customers who have vision, hearing, or speech disabilities, and you are responsible for taking the steps that are needed for effective communication. As a business owner or manager, you must decide what assistance is appropriate, depending on the nature of the communication and the customer’s normal method of communication.

The rules are intentionally flexible. Different types of businesses may need different solutions, because the nature of their communications are different. Also, different customers need different solutions, because the nature of their disabilities are different.

At a casual restaurant where the menu is posted on the wall, a cashier is reading the menu to a man who is blind.

Practical solutions

The aim is to figure out practical solutions that allow you to communicate with customers who have disabilities, fit with your type of business, and comply with the ADA. Some easy solutions work in relatively simple and straightforward situations. Other, more extensive solutions are needed where the information being communicated is more extensive or complex.

For relatively simple and straightforward transactions

  • You can speak or read information to a customer who is blind or has low vision.
  • You can use facial or body gestures that express information, point to information, or write notes to communicate with a customer who is deaf or hard of hearing.
  • You can read notes written by a customer who has a speech disability, or read or listen to the words communicated by the customer’s “communication board.”
  • Customers who are blind may also need assistance in finding an item or in maneuvering through your business’s space.

For more extensive or complex communications

  • For people who are blind or have low vision, printed information can be provided in large print, in Braille, on a computer disk, or in an audio format (such as an audio CD, cassette, or MP3 player), depending on what is usable for the particular customer. A magnifying glass can also help a person with low vision to read printed materials.
  • For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, spoken information can be provided using a sign language interpreter, an oral interpreter, a printed transcript of the words that are usually spoken, or a service called “real-time captioning” which is explained later.

Usually the customer will tell you what technique he or she needs or will ask which ones you provide. Or, you can ask what technique he or she normally uses to understand printed information (if he or she has a vision disability) or spoken information (if he or she has a hearing disability). This information is helpful in deciding how to provide effective communication.

What visual information does your business provide?

If your business displays merchandise, labels, or signs, but you do not typically hand out printed materials (for example, you operate a hotel gift shop),you can usually conduct business successfully by speaking or reading information to a customer who is blind or has low vision. You can also assist a customer who is blind by describing the layout of an area, or helping the customer locate where to sign the credit card slip.

In a restaurant, a waiter is reading a menu to a woman who is blind.

If your business hands out simple printed materials, you have several options. If you operate a restaurant, for example, you can have your waiters read the menu to a diner who is blind or can provide an audio recording of the menu. For customers who have low vision, you can have some menus printed in larger print or can keep a magnifying glass available for customer use (and a flashlight in low light situations). These techniques also work for small brochures, flyers, and other simple printed materials that are provided to customers. When these techniques are offered, it is not necessary to provide the materials in Braille.

If your business relies on printed materials to communicate extensive or specialized information, you must be prepared to deal with customers who use different techniques for absorbing printed information. Materials such as sales contracts should be made available in alternative ways, such as on a computer disk, in an audio format, in Braille, or in large print, so the customer can adequately study the information.

The important thing is to find out what technique(s) a particular customer can use. Some people who are blind have computer programs that convert written words into spoken words.Others use audio recordings in various formats. Some, but not all, people who are blind read Braille. Large print may be useful for people who have some vision.

What oral information does your business provide?
In a restaurant, a man who is deaf is writing a note to ask the waiter how a certain dish is prepared

For short, simple conversations, you may be able to successfully communicate with a customer who is deaf or hard of hearing by using gestures and notes.

For more lengthy and in-depth communications, such as a sales meeting with an individual planning a major conference at a hotel, you must be prepared to deal with customers who use different techniques for absorbing oral information.

Generally, a sign language interpreter is required for complex communications when the customer’s primary method of communication is sign language. There are several sign languages used in the United States. American Sign Language (ASL, or Ameslan), Signed English, and Pidgin Signed English are the three most prevalent ones.

An oral interpreter may be required to communicate with a customer who has been trained to speechread (read lips). Normally, only about a quarter of English words can be seen on the mouth. An oral interpreter uses specialized mouth and hand gestures to reinforce what the speaker is saying to the customer.

“Real-time captioning,” also called “computer-assisted real-time translation” (CART), is a service for communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The transcriber takes down the speaker's words using either a stenography machine or a computer. Almost immediately, the words appear in text on a screen so the deaf person can “read” what the speaker is saying. This service is useful for people who can read and understand English.

Many people who lose their hearing later in life never learn sign language or speechreading. When it is necessary to communicate orally with a customer, face the customer, speak clearly, do not cover your mouth or chew gum, do not turn away while speaking, be sure your face is well-lighted, minimize background noise and distractions if possible, use gestures or point to printed information to reinforce what you are saying, and rephrase any statements the person does not seem to understand.

Video conferencing and other new technologies that provide immediate remote access to sign language interpreters, oral interpreters, and CART operators may also provide easy and inexpensive ways to obtain interpreters and transcribers when needed.

Obtaining visual and oral communication services

You can ask customers to notify you in advance if they need any of these services. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with agencies that provide these services in your area, so that you will be prepared when the need arises. Local disability organizations or ADA Information Line staff can help you identify local service providers.

Some services, such as an audio recording of a menu or a large print version of a flyer, can be prepared in-house with your own equipment.

You may not charge the customer extra to cover the cost of any services needed to communicate effectively. You should consider them as part of your overall cost of doing business. (See the discussion of “undue burden,” below.) If yours is a small business, there is a tax credit that you may be able to use to help offset these costs.

You cannot require customers to bring their own interpreters. However, if a customer prefers to bring his or her own interpreter, the ADA permits you to accept this arrangement, if agreed upon in advance. In a case like this, you are responsible for paying the interpreter’s fees. If a customer shows up with an interpreter unarranged, you are not obliged to use or pay for the interpreter’s services, unless you agree to do so.

Telephone communications using the relay service
A person with a TTY is using the relay service to order a pizza.

You answer the telephone and the caller says, “This is relay CA #___. Have you received a relay call before?” What do you do? [The relay operator is called a "CA" for "communication assistant." The operator will provide his or her state identification number.]

Don’t hang up! The telecommunications relay service (TRS) is a free nationwide service that enables people who have hearing or speech disabilities who use TTYs (teletypewriters, also known as text telephones or TDDs) to communicate with people who use telephones and vice versa.

How it works: When a TTY-user types his or her words on a TTY, the words appear on a display in front of the relay operator, and the operator reads those words to the telephone-user. The telephone-user speaks his or her words to the operator, and the operator types those words to send them to the TTY-user.

The relay service is also used to communicate with people who can speak to the telephone-user but cannot hear the response, and by people who can hear the telephone-user but cannot speak clearly enough to respond.

If your business accepts calls from the public, you must accept relay calls. To place a call to a customer who uses a TTY, dial 7-1-1 to access the relay service.

Limits

The ADA has limits on how far you must go in providing effective communication. You are not expected to provide any services that would “fundamentally alter” your goods and services or that would cause an “undue burden.” What does this mean?

“Fundamental alteration”

A fundamental alteration is a change that is so significant that it alters the essential nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that you offer.

“Undue burden”

The ADA does not require you to furnish any communication aids or services that place an undue burden on your business. An undue burden is defined as "significant difficulty or expense." It is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, relative to your overall business resources.

When a particular communication aid or service would cause an undue burden, you must provide another communication aid or service that still is effective but is less difficult or costly, if one is available.

Summary

  • The ADA expects you to communicate effectively with people who have vision, hearing, or speech disabilities. When necessary, you must provide communication aids or services in order to communicate effectively.
  • As a business owner or manager, you must decide what technique is appropriate, depending on the nature of the communication and the customer’s normal method of communication.
  • You are not expected to provide any communication aid or service that would fundamentally alter the nature of your goods and services or that would cause an undue burden.
  • Methods for communicating with customers who are blind or have low vision include: having staff read printed information to the customer; providing the information in large print, in Braille, on a computer disk, or in an audio format so the customer can read or listen to it; or assisting the customer in finding an item or in maneuvering through your business’s space.
  • Methods for communicating with customers who are deaf or hard of hearing include: using gestures, writing notes, providing printed information, using a sign language interpreter, using an oral interpreter, or using a real-time captioning service.
  • Methods for communicating with customers who have speech disabilities include: reading notes written by the customer, or reading or listening to words communicated by the customer’s communication board.
  • Generally, a sign language interpreter is required when a customer’s primary method of communication is sign language and the information is so complex or lengthy that sign language is required to communicate effectively.
  • The telecommunications relay service (TRS) is a free nationwide service that enables people who use telephones to communicate with people who use TTYs.