Phone companies are failing to tell prospective customers about the services they provide for disabled people, according to the communications watchdog.
Ofcom described the performance of the eight companies – BT, Orange, O2, TalkTalk, T-Mobile, Virgin Media, Vodafone and 3 – as “fairly poor”, and warned that it could impose heavy fines if they fail to improve.
The country’s leading campaigning organisation of blind people called the findings from a “mystery shopping” survey “concerning”, and said the companies should take “immediate steps” to improve their performance.
Ofcom commissioned the survey to discover what advice would-be disabled customers – or their relatives – would be given by phone or email about accessible services.
By law, phone companies have to provide a range of services to disabled customers, such as free directory enquiries for those who cannot use a printed version, bills and contracts in accessible formats, access to a text relay service, and priority repairs for customers who depend on a landline because of a health condition or impairment.
They must also take “reasonable steps” to ensure these services are “widely publicised”.
But only just over a third of callers in the survey were told about at least one service available for disabled customers without being prompted.
Even after prompting, this figure only rose to three-quarters of callers. Ofcom said this was a “significant drop” since similar research in 2006, which found 91 per cent of calls resulted in such information being provided after prompting.
The survey also found that in only one out of every 25 calls did the company mention three or more of the services without prompting.
Many of the companies’ websites also failed to mention key services for disabled customers.
Ofcom said it had asked the companies to set out action plans with “reasonable timings” for improvements.
An Ofcom spokeswoman said all the companies had pledged to take action, although “some are more enthusiastic about it than others”.
It plans a further survey, and warned of possible enforcement action if companies fail to improve, which could mean a fine of up to 10 per cent of their turnover.
Douglas Gilroy, vice-president of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFB UK), said: “Services such as free directory enquiries for those who cannot read a printed telephone directory, bills and contracts in accessible formats and priority repairs for customers who depend on a landline, are all important and essential to blind and partially-sighted people.”
Many blind and partially-sighted people rely on the telephone as their main means of communication, he added.
Gilroy called on the companies to take “immediate steps to eliminate these poor findings” and meet their legal duties.
7 October 2010