A woman in Kent received large-print utility bills because she is partially blind. She then began receiving other people's bills in Braille format, and became worried about others receiving her bills. She said that she had recently been a victim of identity theft.
That woman's experience highlighted the issue of alternative format communications, and the degree to which companies have to supply them.
It is a legal obligation to offer services to people with disabilities without any discrimination related to their disability, according to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
"Businesses who provide services must make a reasonable adjustment [for people with disabilities], and that can mean providing correspondence in Braille, large print or any other format," said a spokeswoman for the Disability Rights Commission (DRC). "They have a legal obligation to do that."
Companies cannot get around changing their services to make them accessible by declining to provide them to disabled people. Companies can challenge what is 'reasonable' under the Act, though.
"They can bring a challenge and argue that something is not reasonable," said the spokeswoman. "Only a court can decide what is unreasonable."
The spokeswoman said that the DRC receives many requests for action on the provision of, or the failure to provide, alternative format bills.
"Companies should be providing alternative format bills, and I know that we certainly support people with this issue." She said that the DRC had handled three formal disputes on the matter, two with banks and one with an energy supplier.
The DDA says: "It is unlawful for a provider of services to discriminate against a disabled person … in refusing to provide, or deliberately not providing, to the disabled person any service which he provides, or is prepared to provide, to members of the public".
If a practice, policy or procedure makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to make use of a service, the provider has a duty "to take such steps as it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to have to take in order to change that practice, policy or procedure so that it no longer has that effect."
The Act also provides that where an auxiliary aid or service, "for example, the provision of information on audio tape or of a sign language interpreter," would enable disabled persons to make use of a service, the service provider must take reasonable steps to provide that auxiliary aid or service.
Some of the remedies can be expensive, and could prove difficult for some small businesses to implement.
The DRC spokeswoman said that the law and the courts were likely to take a reasonable and pragmatic view of the reality facing a company.
"Someone like Marks and Spencer would have different obligations to a single high street shop, for example," she said. "They will often be able to find a solution that suits the business and the person which won't put the company out of business."