Why accessible banking is a win-win

Making your community bank accessible to people of all abilities is the right thing to do. It’s also a boon for your bank’s reputation and bottom line. Here’s why—and how.

By Kelly Pike

Online banking is easy—except when it isn’t.

It’s not just about connectivity. It’s also about accessibility. An estimated one in five Americans is disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For some people, this creates obstacles that make even the most convenient banking services hard to access.

People with vision impairment and dyslexia are unable to access many websites because the sites aren’t optimized to work with screen readers. Uncaptioned videos exclude deaf customers, who can’t understand them. Flashing graphics can induce seizures in people with epilepsy, while low-contrast color palettes can hinder the colorblind. Cluttered websites can make it hard for those using adaptive technologies, including people with arthritis, strokes and cerebral palsy.

Then there are the challenges outside the home. Some ATMs aren’t voice enabled or use touchscreens instead of touchpads, rendering them useless for the visually impaired. Customers with mobility issues struggle in branches where there is nowhere to sit while they wait. Teller counters can be too high for people in wheelchairs, and employees aren’t always trained in how to best help the disabled. There are banks that don’t accept calls from video relay services used by the deaf.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that banks have a minimum level of accessibility, something community banks have worked to provide for years. But accessibility isn’t only a legal issue. It’s a customer service issue. When a customer is unable to access a bank’s service, whether electronically or in a branch, it sends a message that the bank doesn’t care about that customer.

“Many people with disabilities feel unwelcome at banks,” says Michael Morris, executive director at the National Disability Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to economically empowering disabled people. “Misperceptions, misunderstandings and a lack of basic disability etiquette among bank staff can have a negative and discouraging effect on customers with disabilities.”

Think about the average community bank accessibility statement: legal boilerplate written by a lawyer. This is the opposite of welcoming and user-friendly, says Simon Dermer, managing director with eSSENTIAL Accessibility Inc., a company that provides assistive technology and web accessibility evaluation services.

It’s also a lost opportunity. Banks could be using these statements as a chance to spotlight products and services that make it easier for disabled people to bank with them, demonstrating that the bank wants their business. It could even be part of overall branding, featuring people of differing abilities.

“By projecting a disability-friendly image, you’re not just going after a sizable market,” says Dermer. “A large number of households have friends or family members with a disability and an emotional connection to it. It resonates.”

Ready for service
People with disabilities are an underbanked market segment, according to the FDIC. More than 18 percent of households headed by people with disabilities are unbanked, and 28 percent are underbanked. While many of these people have high incomes, says Morris, people with disabilities do have disproportionately low incomes and face the same barriers as other people with low incomes: high fees for savings and checking accounts, ATMs and overdraft fees; fees that aren’t transparent; and delays between deposits and when the money is available.

People with disabilities are an underbanked market segment, according to the FDIC. More than 18 percent of households headed by people with disabilities are unbanked, and 28 percent are underbanked. While many of these people have high incomes, says Morris, people with disabilities do have disproportionately low incomes and face the same barriers as other people with low incomes: high fees for savings and checking accounts, ATMs and overdraft fees; fees that aren’t transparent; and delays between deposits and when the money is available.

“They also use alternative financial services, such as payday lenders, because banks don’t offer small-amount loans or loans to people with poor credit scores,” he adds.

Banks often feel skittish when talking about accessibility, fearing lawsuits like the recent challenge over visually impaired people’s access to electronic banking resources (see sidebar). This makes banks reactive to disability-related issues as they seek to solve a legal problem, instead of focusing on user experience, Dermer says.

Fortunately, it’s getting easier to understand what’s expected. Many community banks are embracing the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 (find it at w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag). This provides technical standards for developers and ensures accessibility is an integral part of digital development and not an afterthought.

“Think of the guidelines as a set of directions,” says Dermer. “When you build a webpage, you don’t do it in a haphazard manner. [Integrate accessibility] in the same way you approach user experience.”

“Digital accessibility is not a one-off fix,” Dermer says. “That’s the unfortunate truth. The digital realm is dynamic, with websites constantly changing. It’s a constant journey to maintain accessibility.”

That’s why some banks choose to have their websites tested for accessibility, either hiring a third party or actively seeking feedback from customers with disabilities.

Serving customers with disabilities isn’t just about technology. There are many low-tech ways to serve this market, says Morris. These include hiring people with disabilities, offering low- or no-fee bank accounts, offering guaranteed forms of payment that are cheaper, offering affordable small-dollar loans or credit-building loans, and offering financial education that recognizes the challenges that people with disabilities face.

Get the knowledge
Staff training is enormously helpful. Frontline staff should be trained in how to aid customers with disabilities. They don’t necessarily need to know how to communicate in sign language, for example, but they do need to understand the importance of being patient when dealing with individuals with intellectual disabilities and hearing loss, and how to work with companions that accompany and aid people with disabilities when they visit the bank.

Behind-the-scenes staff should be trained to consider people with disabilities when developing products, services and communications, whether it’s providing large-print copies of documents or developing digital touchpoints with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. For example, every time a bank redesigns its website, it presents a challenge to people with disabilities, who have to relearn it. Staff can also be trained to make sure third-party contracts ensure vendors are complying with the bank’s accessibility policies and procedures.

“Because disability occurs across a broad spectrum, financial institutions need to be nimble in the ways they interact with customers who have disabilities,” says Morris. It can be helpful to work with disability organizations to improve compliance and ease of use.

Accessibility champion
First Florida Integrity Bank in Naples, Fla., doesn’t provide accessible services just because it’s the law. It does it because it’s the right thing to do—and because accessibility benefits everyone.

First Florida’s commitment begins with its accessibility statement, which emphasizes that taking care of the needs of customers with disabilities is part of its values, culture and concern for the community. ATMs have Braille stickers directing vision-impaired customers to an audio jack. They also meet ADA guidelines for height and reach requirements for those in wheelchairs. Sit-down teller windows are wheelchair accessible, and staff are trained to help those who need extra assistance.

The bank makes continual accessibility improvements to its website. From attending conferences and reading industry news to using a third-party specialty tool to constantly screen its website for issues, the bank is dedicated to meeting the standards of the W3C and its WCAG 2.0, says Peter Setaro, senior executive vice president–chief information officer.

First Florida is aware of font sizes and avoids flashing graphics. It chooses contrasting background colors and properly embedded codes in headers and footers so that automated readers will know exactly what a document is. Navigation corresponds with left to right to emulate reading patterns.

“Keeping it simple is very important,” says Garrett Richter, president and CEO of First Florida Integrity Bank. “There is so much information, because everyone wants to bombard you with everything, and we really try not to do that. We get important topics in front of the customer but don’t try to overstimulate on the first page.”

“By projecting a disability-friendly image, you’re not just going after a sizable market. A large number of households have friends or family members with a disability and an emotional connection toit. It resonates.”

—Simon Dermer, essential Accessibility Inc.

On the website, the bank gives tips for helping customers adjust their browsers to make it easier to access content, both on the website and on the customer’s computer in general. Suggestions include increasing text size, magnifying the screen, enabling high-contrast text and having the words on the screen read out loud.

It also offers in-branch conveniences. It has sit-down teller lines, and employees are trained to help people with vision problems or those who bring a companion. Other conveniences include instant-issue debit cards that save customers time, and opening the doors 10 minutes before posted hours and closing them 10 minutes after. The phone is never answered by an automated system during business hours.

“We want to take care of every customer in the way they need to be taken care of,” says Gary Tice, chairman, CEO and president of the $1.4 billion-asset First Florida Integrity Bank’s holding company. “That’s just our philosophy.”

For example, one 53-year-old customer with autism loves to come to the bank and say that he works there. Employees let him pretend that an empty office is his and gave him a First Florida nametag for his birthday, much to his delight. “You should have seen his eyes and face light up as he said, ‘Oh, my! I’m a banker now!’” says Richter. “He had the biggest smile on his face.”

As First Florida has found, increased accessibility can benefit all customers, including seniors. Take curb cuts: They were originally designed to aid people with disabilities, but today they are used by everyone from parents pushing strollers to travelers pulling suitcases. Accessible banking products and services can have the same effect, making the world more comfortable and convenient for everyone.

ICBA settlement limits accessibility lawsuits

In 2016, advocacy group Access Now began sending banks complaint letters warning that electronic banking services, including websites, ATMs, phone banking services and mobile banking apps, were not compliant with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires accessibility for the visually impaired.

With no specific requirements to guide community banks, in November 2017, ICBA reached a settlement with Access Now to show community banks’ commitment to helping the vision-impaired access banking services. After ICBA agreed to adopt and distribute the Restatement of Voluntary Access Principles to its members, Access Now agreed to release community banks with less than $50 billion in assets from related lawsuits.

As part of the settlement, ICBA encourages members to:

  • make an effort to ensure web functionality is accessible to those who are vision impaired. One acceptable set of voluntary principles for accessibility is the World Wide Web Consortium’s version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)
  • train employees to help achieve this goal
  • develop electronic banking service accessibility guidelines designed to promote increased independent use of services by those with disabilities and their companions
  • implement these principles by Dec. 31, 2020, unless the Justice Department releases guidelines
  • provide a contact and quick response for those with accessibility issues
  • ensure third-party vendors conform to these standards.
    Learn more at bit.ly/accessibleweb.

Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.

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