Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Barriers: Tele-communicating, Part 3

Continued from Part 2

If the restrictions described in Part 2 were lifted, then the issues discussed in this section wouldn't apply or be so onerous; yet someone living in the poverty well daily encounters such barriers, whereby reasonable logical workarounds meet up with intransigence.

As things stand, the very poor must deal with the assumptions and out-dated practices of government and private organizations. These come down almost always to a) the requirement that you - citizen, constituent, client, customer - have a phone number, while at the same time b) your having a phone number has NOTHING to do with the information or service you are trying to access.

Example 1: You are trying to make a purchase online which you will pay for using your credit card. You've filled out all the web form's fields but one. It's the phone field, which the web designer has made mandatory. (Web designers inevitably do.) Unless you enter a phone number there, your form won't go through.

This is a consistent requirement of online merchants. It is associated with the practice of credit card companies to have a phone number on file for all credit card holders. Merchants verify the credit card by matching the card holder's name, address and telephone number on file with the credit card company. If any one of those don't match, you are unlikely to be able to make the purchase.

Telephoning the merchant - using your new SkypeOUT service! - doesn't rectify the problem. The merchant will say this is a requirement of the credit card company.

It isn't, strictly. I've made online purchases using an obvious dummy phone number, e.g., 123-456-7890. However, to avoid more hassle, I've now resorted to using the old number still on file with my credit card company (on the friendly, sotto voce, advice of a customer service rep there). It doesn't appear to matter that the number is no longer mine. In other words, I have to engage in a dishonest practice, something I am loathe to do, in order to get the same service as anyone else.

Example 2: You are trying to lodge a complaint and get service from a local merchant with respect to a sale item that was out of stock virtually before the sale began. (This situation, affecting different items in different departments, has happened too frequently in recent months, which suggests misleading advertising or an abysmal failure in the stocking department.) After being passed from one person to the next, you finally reach someone with the authority to make a decision. She says she will check to see if the item is now in stock. If/when it is available, it will be put aside for you. The following conversation takes place:

"What is your phone number?"

"I can't be accessed by phone. However, you can reach me by email."

"Well, we always use phone."

"I can't be accessed by phone. Doesn't your company use email?"

(Audible sigh) "This is highly unusual."

"Which means you can't send me an email?"

"Well we haven't done it in the past."

"So you won't send me an email?"

"Well, can't you use a phone?"

By which point, I wield the following club:

"I write a popular blog. It's read by many people. I use Twitter and have xxx followers. I write about stuff like this."

(Another audible sigh, a worried one) "Alright, what's your email address?"

I get this kind of reaction all the time, whether I'm making a call or having the conversation in person and this is one of the rare times in which I eventually get cooperation. Of course, if SkypeIN were allowed in Canada, the issue wouldn't arise.

Example 3: You want to make an appointment with your doctor. Although your doctor's office uses email, it won't accept requests for an appointment by that means. Therefore, if you haven't SkypeOUT (which was my situation for two years - no headphones and no $30 for the Skype subscription), then you must walk to the doctor's office to make the appointment.

Alternatively, you're trying to reach your veterinarian about your sick cat. Although they use email, they won't accept email queries or emailed requests for an appointment. They do accept faxes. If you haven't SkypeOUT, you must therefore go through a convoluted process of communicating with them. You use a free Internet-based fax service to send them a fax. Upon receipt of the fax, the veterinary office responds by email.

Example 4: You're trying to get assistance from a government office - say, Revenue Canada or the BC government, about a tax rebate. You've been going around in circles on their website trying to find out how to contact them. Eventually, you come upon their support section. Only phone numbers are listed, no email addresses. You haven't SkypeOUT.

Alternatively, you do have SkypeOUT and so you make the call. Either all lines are busy and you're asked to leave your phone number or, for some usually unspoken reason (pigheadedness?), you are required to give a phone number in order to receive further assistance or service. When you're unable to provide a phone number and ask instead to be contacted or have your existence verified by email, you get the same reaction as in Example 2. Only the reaction is worse; it almost always is from bureaucrats. (Elections BC was a welcome exception; they couldn't have been more helpful.)

Moral of the story: There are reasons the poor stay poor and poverty numbers are growing. There are reasons why people in poverty struggle to maintain their dignity. There are simple ways to overcome these obstacles: all it takes is political will, common sense on the part of business and nonprofits, and an ounce of compassion.

In the meantime, people of low income must persevere and keep pushing back at the barriers imposed, usually unthinkingly, by others. We've the toughest job of all: to keep surviving while working to adjust people's attitudes and society's ways.

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