Disabled people and communications services

Man looking at mobile phoneCommunications services are important for all citizens and consumers, including disabled people.

Disabled people are active users of communications services and in some cases they have higher than average use of key services.

For example, Ofcom research has found that disabled people watch more television than average and research from RNIB suggests that radio is more important to blind and partially sighted people than to sighted people.

Disabled people may also be more reliant on certain communications services.

For example, they may find online shopping or banking more accessible than using the high street. They may also need to know that they can phone for help if in difficulty or in an emergency.

However, disabled people may need changes to the way in which a service is provided in order to be able to benefit from it and use it independently.

Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act to have regard for the needs of disabled people when making and implementing regulatory decisions. To inform its work, Ofcom has carried out in-depth research into the issues facing people with disabilities. This has focused on the following groups:

People with hearing impairments

People with visual impairments

People with mobility and dexterity impairments

People with learning disabilities

We have also published an easy read version of the learning disability research  and an easy read guide to using your mobile phone.

While the specific issues facing people with different types of impairments vary, some issues are common to many disabled people.

For example, problems when dealing with call centres came up in all four pieces of research. Although Ofcom does not regulate call centres, we did publish a guide for call centres about how to offer a good service to disabled customers. There is also a much more detailed document produced by the Employers’ Forum on Disability.

As a public body, Ofcom is required to promote equality in all its work, both as a service provider and an employer. We have published our
Equality Scheme
setting out how we will do this.

Services for disabled people - telecommunications

Ofcom requires communications providers (fixed and mobile) to provide a range of services designed to benefit disabled customers, including:

Access to an approved text relay service for people who are hearing- or speech-impaired, with rebates to compensate customers for the additional time taken by these calls. Relay users type their message into a textphone, which transmits the message to the relay centre. The relay operator voices the message to a hearing user who replies in speech. The relay operator types the reply which appears on the textphone's display screen.  Next Generation Text Relay will enable the relay service to be used from mainstream equipment such as smartphones and will be launched in a few weeks’ time.  If you would like to join the trial of Next Generation Text Relay and have a computer, tablet or smartphone, please go to http://ngts.org.uk/trial_index.php to sign up.

Access to emergency SMS (mobile only) for people who cannot make a voice call and who need to contact the emergency services.  To use this service, text ‘register’ to 999 or 112.  Registration only takes around a minute, so it is possible to register in an emergency, but advance registration is strongly recommended.   For more information visit  http://www.emergencysms.org.uk/

Free directory enquiries for consumers who are unable to use a printed directory because of a disability, with through-connection of calls.

Priority fault repair (fixed line only) for customers who depend on the telephone because of ill-health or disability and have an urgent need for a repair.

Third party bill management, enabling a nominated friend or relative to act on behalf of someone who needs help to manage their affairs.

Bills and contracts in formats such as large print and Braille on request.

You need to register in advance for some of these services - please contact your communications provider for information about how to do this.

The only approved text relay service in the UK is Text Relay which is operated by BT. All other communications providers give their customers access to this.

Communications providers are also required to publicise the availability of these services, and Ofcom has carried out research into how well communications providers are doing this. Ofcom discussed the findings of this research with the communications providers concerned and required them to produce detailed plans setting out how they will improve the situation. We also asked for copies of the training and reference materials that are provided to call handlers to inform them about these services.

Services for disabled consumers - broadcasting

Subtitling, sign language on TV and audio description, known as television access services, help people with hearing or visual impairments to understand and enjoy television.

Ofcom ensures that broadcasters provide minimum proportions of programmes with subtitling, sign language and audio description. Ofcom publishes information about the amounts of television access services that broadcasters are required to provide and what they actually deliver.

Subtitling: currently 70 channels are required to provide some level of subtitling, with the BBC committed to subtitling 100% of its programming.

Signed television programmes incorporate a signer translating dialogue and sound effects into sign language. Low audience channels may, as an alternative to transmitting their quota of sign interpreted programmes, pay an equivalent sum of money to the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust which has been set up to commission programmes presented in sign language. Over 60 channels have signed up to this scheme and programmes can be watched on the BSL Zone on television and on the BSLBT website.

Audio description comprises a separate audio track in which a narrator uses spaces in the original sound track to describe what is happening on-screen for the benefit of people with visual impairments. Like subtitling, it can be turned on or off. You can find listings of audio described programmes here. An increasing number of set top boxes and televisions receive audio description, and it can also be accessed on cable and satellite television. The RNID has a helpful factsheet listing the set top boxes and integrated digital televisions that can receive audio description.

On cable and satellite only, you may need to use a different channel number to access the audio description for BBC1, BBC2, ITV1 and Channel 4, depending on where you live. If you cannot receive audio description, try changing to these channels:

  Freesat Virgin Sky
BBC1 outside London 950 851 974
BBC2 outside London   852  
BBC2 outside England 968   989
ITV1 London   853  
ITV1 outside London 977 993
Channel 4 London   854  
Channel 4 outside London 974

Choosing equipment

All consumers benefit from equipment that is easy to use, but for disabled consumers this is a particularly important issue.

Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act to promote the development and availability of easy-to-use consumer equipment. However, Ofcom has limited regulatory powers in relation to such equipment. Instead, we work with others to promote usability. There is more information about our work in this area here.

There are also some useful online resources to help disabled people choose equipment that will be suitable for them.

Ricability has information about digital television, including indoor aerials, set top boxes, digital TV recorders and integrated digital televisions The Mobile Accessibility
has detailed information about mobile handsets and their features

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any phones that are compatible with hearing aids?

Where can I buy a hearing aid compatible mobile phone?

Where can I buy a hearing aid compatible landline phone?

Are there any mobile tariffs that are suitable for deaf people who use SMS but do not make voice calls?

Can a bank or other service provider refuse to take a call via a relay service?

I am disabled - am I entitled to discounts on my phone bill?

Where can I find a radio that is easy for someone with a visual impairment to use?

Are there any sources of funding for the equipment I need?

Is there anything I can do about background noise on TV?

Why can't I receive audio description on some channels?