Customer service: is it an endangered species?

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on July 25, 2017 # Mobility

People with disabilities, especially those of us who are paralyzed, must rely on others doing the right thing in order to survive. During the last few weeks we have witnessed many examples of failures on the part of the nation's airlines, especially when it comes to handling the mobility devices and other needs of travelers with disabilities. In far too many cases, these passengers who paid to travel in comfort were instead abused verbally and physically, often arriving at their destinations with wheelchairs so damaged that they could not be operated safely.

After all of the highly publicized incidents involving confrontations between airline employees and passengers, at least one of the air carriers has decided that they will make official the attitude that many airlines have demonstrated during the last few years anyway. JetBlue management stated that they no longer feel that "the customer is always right."

There is one slight problem with that, because they seem to forget that without those customers they would not be in business. It is hard to imagine what life would be like if similar attitudes were adopted by other businesses. Picture what the long-term repercussions would be if the general public was ignored or confronted about the choices they make at those establishments: "You wanted Caesar salad? Not today, as you're having 1000 Island dressing instead; take it or leave it" or "we know that you ordered and paid for a new pickup truck but we decided to give you a station wagon instead. Our philosophy is that the customer is not always right."

Unfortunately that attitude is already present in many restaurants and retail establishments across the country. I can roll down the streets of my own hometown in my power wheelchair and find numerous businesses that I cannot enter without assistance because they do not comply with either the ADA( or state access laws. Stepped entrances where a simple ramp could be constructed lead to heavy entry doors with non-compliant handles that cannot accommodate the clenched fist I would need to use to open them.

The businesses behind those inaccessible doors are not only violating access laws; they are making it clear to my friends and I that they do not need or want our business. We cannot check out their customer service, as we cannot even be their customers.

Many members of the disability community face similar attitudes at home too, due to a need to use the transit option of paratransit if they are unable to access and ride nearby fixed route buses or trains. With advanced scheduling required, impromptu travel in these vans is virtually impossible.

Don't get me wrong; this is a valued and necessary transportation option in many communities where it exists. However…

Pickup and dropoff times are assigned by a scheduler, and often far in advance of when the rides are needed; in some cases, a return trip can be scheduled only long after whatever business being done is concluded. Once seated or parked in the paratransit vans, we are at the mercy of distant dispatchers who seem to make our trips as arduous and as lengthy as possible.

I experienced that again this week, as I needed to use paratransit for a visit to my doctor. The distance is about 12 miles and it normally takes about 20 minutes to drive there, even in heavier traffic. Freeways parallel most of the route, but for some reason paratransit drivers often choose to avoid them as much as possible and use city streets with plenty of stoplights on the route. The trip to the clinic took 55 minutes, but the trip home was far worse; the normally 20-minute ride took two hours and 15 minutes.

Why? Once I was picked up after my appointment, the trip included a 20-mile roundtrip in the opposite direction from my destination, plus a breakdown in communication between the driver and the dispatcher. That led to an unnecessary 35 minute wait for another passenger, who was actually sitting in another paratransit van that had been parked a short distance behind us the entire time. I feel sorry for that individual as he is forced to do that transfer between paratransit vehicles twice a day, following long van rides just to reach that point.

It would be nice if those paratransit trips included more quality customer service for everyone; it is a critical need for many people who would otherwise be trapped at home, and it would be nice to be able to relax along the way.

© 2017 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.