Section 508: What can we infer from a lack of complaints?

Question: "How's 508 working out for your customers?"

Response: "We haven't had any complaints, so I think we're doing really well."

A lack of complaints is often cited in Section 508 circles as an indicator that we are all doing a great job for our customers. But are we? Research on consumer complaints suggests that people in general don't complain. They either go elsewhere, or just stop using that type of product or service.

Think about your latest bad restaurant experience. Did you complain to the management or just not go back? If you were to complain to the manager about your food, would you expect to receive a prompt, courteous response with a sincere attempt to resolve the problem? You bet! Section 508 departments put plans and procedures in place to quickly respond to complaints as they arise. Indeed I've heard this as a point of pride on two fronts: (1) "When we get a complaint, we jump on it and fix it right away!" and (2) "We get very few complaints, so that obviously means we're providing a good service!"

The truth is we generally don't complain at restaurants because we'd rather not make a scene. In practice we just choose not to go back. But think about technology for a moment from the perspective of a person with a sensory or physical disability. Those of us working in the disability field know that there is much left to do. A significant amount of the technology in everyday life (both in and outside of government) is still inaccessible. People with disabilities could spend their whole lives complaining, because it isn't just the odd inconvenience of lukewarm soup; it's the continual inconvenience of inaccessible web sites, security systems, telephone systems, photocopiers and so forth.

Add to this the consideration that people with disabilities are the most marginalized cohort in society when it comes to employment, and then consider whether you would complain because your work system has accessibility problems? There isn't the choice of another restaurant in this situation, so would you hold your complaints and instead find a way to work around the problem? Would you try to rely on kind co-workers to tell you what's on the screen because the form fields aren't labeled properly? Would you work later than your co-workers because what they do a hundred times a day with one mouse click takes you ten keyboard strokes each time? Most likely. Of course, there is a minority of people with disabilities who complain, but even the most prolific would tell you that they can only complain so much. No one likes a complainer, right?

A lack of complaints cannot be viewed as an endorsement of our products and services, but unfortunately we reside within a (largely) complaints-based legislative framework. So in the absence of complaints, how do we find out how we are really doing? My first suggestion is to get out there and proactively find out how things are working for customers. Use questions to try to draw out how well (or how badly) systems are working for users, and compare the results to the same questions given to co-workers who do not have disabilities. A word of caution: do this in such a way that participants remain anonymous, otherwise the response will likely be, "Sure, everything's fine—do I get to keep my job?"

Once we know how we’re doing, then we can start to address any problems we find. While there's always a place for good complaint procedures, there's usually a big gaping hole when it comes to long-term proactive measures to ensure customers are actually getting equitable access.

Further reading: "A complaint is a gift: recovering customer loyalty when things go wrong" (2nd edition, Barlow & Møller, 2008).