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How Utility Companies Can Help Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances During Lockdown

As Covid-19 continues to dominate our daily lives, there is increasing concern surrounding UK citizens who are classified as vulnerable – and the growing number who are becoming vulnerable – in their own homes. With internet usage skyrocketing across the country, additional value is being placed on the importance of having the necessary information and communication services available online so that everyone can address their basic human needs for gas, water, and electricity. With limited opportunities to leave the house, and most brick and mortar customer service outlets remaining closed, this can be a challenge for the more vulnerable in our society.

When discussing the vulnerable, we typically think of the elderly, the infirm, and those living below the poverty line. However, the term also takes account of those without the ability to adequately understand or communicate, and those who do not have access to information that they need. In this case specifically, the information they need to keep them safe and warm during the Covid-19 lockdown. In relation to online accessibility, this includes those who are unable to read in English and those who suffer from visual impairments.

The same principle is true of those with disabilities. We tend to think of ‘the disabled’ as those who are physically incapacitated. However, many types of mental disability also fall into this category. This includes those who suffer from conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and hyperlexia. The 2010 Equality Act identified all of these conditions as a disability because those suffering from them are unable to fulfill their potential.

Online Accessibility Issues for the Vulnerable

  • 10 % of UK citizens suffer from dyslexia. That’s 1 in every 10 of us that struggles with reading, writing, and spelling. In the online world, unless a website is equipped with accessibility software, this means encountering difficulties with readable fonts, colour contrast, and layout on any given webpage.
  • 10% of the UK population speaks English as a second language. The majority of these can speak English too, but reading and writing in English are much more difficult than having a spoken conversion. This is mainly due to the many complex grammatical rules, but can also be exacerbated by additional factors such as differing phonetic systems between English and the native languages. So reading and communication online can be problematic.
  • NHS statistics suggest that around 2 million residents in the UK are living with sight loss. Around 360,000 of these are registered blind, which leaves over 1.6 million partially sighted citizens that struggle to read web pages and use online chat functions.

The Impacts for Utility Providers

Over the last couple of decades, the UK has moved away from a nationalised gas and electricity system to a privatised system, and there are now more than 60 individual suppliers. This amount of choice can feel somewhat overwhelming, and the internet remains an essential source for information where people can research and compare their options. So it is not just the utility providers themselves that need to be considering consumer accessibility needs, but also the many comparison sites that help people make the best financial decisions.

“The technology of consumer engagement is changing and moving online more and more. As a result, vulnerable customers need to be supported online. Recite Me is now calling on all UK energy comparison websites and energy suppliers to ensure their websites are accessible for people with disabilities. We look forward to seeing more UK energy comparison websites and energy suppliers using web accessibility software such as Recite Me to ensure they are fully supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances.”

Recite Me Founder and CEO Ross Linnett

The Covid-19 Catalyst

Lockdown has made things more difficult for everyone. Communication is harder, human contact is reduced, and many people have withdrawn from society altogether. This has had a significant effect on individual psychology and stress levels, with studies and surveys already showing increases in cases of depression. All of us have struggled with the realities of Covid-19 in some way or another, so it is difficult to imagine how scared and frustrated some of our more vulnerable citizens are feeling at the moment.

Imagine dealing with all of the regular day-to-day stress of living throughout the pandemic, plus having to deal with accessibility issues to the essential information and services you need to keep you housed, fed, and warm. It is under these circumstances that vulnerability levels increase, as any inequality in access to information (and by default services) can have significant financial impacts on the individuals concerned. This is especially true of those whose job or job security has been threatened by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Solution

Given the lack of physical contact and a reduced sense of community, it is clear that more needs to be done to develop stronger online communities. This means making information accessible to all, and especially information regarding basic needs like energy and heating.

This is where products like Recite Me come in. The assistive toolbar allows those with sight loss or cognitive impairments like learning difficulties and dyslexia to access any website in a way best suited to their individual needs. It also incorporates different linguistic needs. Specific examples include:

  • Text-to-speech functions.
  • The ability to fully customise the look of a website for personal ease of use.
  • A screen mask to provide colour tinting and block visual clutter.
  • Additional reading aids such as an on-screen ruler and text-only mode.
  • A real-time translation feature catering to over 100 languages, including 35 text-to-speech voices.

The Recite Me accessibility toolbar is particularly useful during Covid-19 because it allows users to navigate and understand their online accounts without needing the additional support of live chat functions, or having to spend lengthy waiting times in telephone queues to speak with customer service representatives.

Recite Me is proud to be working alongside many of the country’s leading utility organisations already, including Northern Powergrid, Cadent Gas Limited, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water, and over 20 others. We invite all energy suppliers and utility comparison websites to follow their lead, and make their websites more inclusive by utilising assistive technology.