I Really Hate Automated Phone Menus
by Tina Blue
March 30, 2002
Like many severely hard of hearing (HoH) people, I can sometimes function surprisingly well on the telephone if the person I am speaking with talks directly into the mouthpiece of the phone and speaks clearly--and not too fast, of course.* However, also like most people with severe hearing impairments, I am continually running up against the brick wall of recorded messages and automated telephone menus.
Sometimes when I call someone, I cannot tell from the mumbled answering machine message that I even have the right number, so I don't leave my own name and number at all.
That's an inconvenience, of course. But recorded phone messages often create more serious problems.
A lot of businesses these days use automated phone menus, because they are far more cost-effective than using real people to respond to customer and client queries. Also, automated menus can operate 24/7, which means that businesses can offer many services even outside of normal business hours. Even I appreciate the fact that I can call to order a book or to get my bank balance at any time of the day or night.
Some automated menus are voiced by professionals, men and women (usually women) who are well-known in the voice-recording profession and who make quite a lot of money because their enunciation is clear, their accent indeterminate, and their voices unusually pleasant.
But all too many voice recordings are just like those local commercials that we all cringe over. You know, the ones that star the guy that owns the used car lot, and also his wife, his twelve-year-old daughter, and his dog. When the boss, the secretary, or someone else from the office does the recording for the automated telephone menus, the recording is almost never clear or easy to understand--even for people with normal hearing.
For example, I can't get movie information by phone because our local theater has only an automated information line, and the young man they allow to do the recordings is a major mumbler.
And for those of us with impaired hearing, such careless amateur recordings can make it impossible to access even
necessary information and services.
Not long ago, my extremely HoH sister Linda needed to make an appointment to see her doctor. She never was able to do so, however, because her doctor and his partners had recently instituted an automated phone menu to sort and direct calls. She simply could not hear the menu options well enough to enter the required choices.
As Linda puts it, "I realize that automation is cost effective for any business, but you would think a health care facility would have an option for those who need a live person to go through the steps!"
I score assessment essays each spring as a part-time second job, since I am one of those notoriously underpaid adjunct instructors you read about at large state universities and therefore must work extra jobs to make ends meet.
Just before our current project came up, the company I score essays for sent a postcard to those of us who had worked on past projects. The card had a number to call if we were interested in working this project. I called, but I couldn't understand one word in four on their automated menu. After my first attempt, I had a friend with normal hearing call the number for me and help me out. He actually had trouble understanding the little mousy-voiced woman on the recording!
I sent an angry email to the company about it, of course.
I also think Linda should send a firmly worded letter to her doctor, voicing her frustration over her experience with his office's recorded menu. Me--I'd go down there in person and hiss and spit. (I go on at some length about how we should assert our rights in my article "Deaf Power.") I believe it borders on malpractice to make it impossible for a person with a recognized disability to access health care. (I growl more than most, maybe, when this sort of thing happens.)
The doctor's office doesn't have to not use the darned things. But they really should make sure the recordings are loud and clear. In fact, they should have someone with a hearing impairment call after they have made the recording and check to make sure it is comprehensible--and if it isn't, they should rerecord it.
I think all of us with hearing impairments should make a point of expressing our annoyance when we bump up against such unnecessary obstacles. One reason people are so careless of our needs is that they either don't know about them or, if they do, they don't think about them.
But if we never make them hear our concerns, then we are at least partly responsible for their failure to show us reasonable consideration.