Some people living with disabilities eschew banking services because they feel financially underserved or physically barred. Through sensitive customer service, affordable products and ADA-compliant accessibility, community banks can make them feel welcomed and accommodated.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Many people with disabilities don’t have any banking relationships, but that’s not because they don’t want to have them. Many feel like they can’t access needed services—or they just don’t feel welcome.
Community banks can work harder to make both physical branches and digital channels more accessible and ensure employees understand how to interact with people with disabilities so their financial needs can be met with dignity. (See “Tips for disability etiquette” below.)
In the FDIC’s “How America Banks” survey, 16.2% of people with disabilities in the U.S. were unbanked, compared with 4.5% of those with no disability. Additionally, the study found that only 49.2% of people with disabilities used a bank credit product (credit card or personal loan) in the past year, compared with 76.5% of those without disabilities.
“There are several income and disability-related reasons people may have low credit that have to do with … the way credit scores are calculated.”
—Barry A. Whaley, Southeast ADA Center–Burton Blatt Institute
One explanation why they may be unbanked is that many have little or no income, says Barry A. Whaley, project director at the Southeast ADA Center–Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University. Indeed, 63% of people with disabilities who do not have bank accounts say “the reason they do not have a bank account is because they don’t have enough money keep in the account,” Whaley says, citing FDIC data. Other common reasons are not trusting banks, having privacy concerns or believing that account fees are too high or unpredictable.
“As for getting bank credit, low-income people tend to have lower credit scores or thin credit, making them ineligible for affordable loans,” Whaley says. “There are several income and disability-related reasons people may have low credit that have to do with … the way credit scores are calculated.”
Another barrier is that some people with disabilities may feel stigmatized when entering a bank branch, according to Southeast ADA Center research. Comments from the study’s participants include: “The banker spoke to my dad instead of talking to me. It was like I wasn’t even there. I was a nobody.” “They talk over me while I am in my wheelchair. They literally do not address me.” “I have a learning disability that affects math ability. I often feel like people in the banking industry think I’m stupid.”
“In order to address the needs of people with disabilities and ensure they have the opportunity to benefit from the valuable services banks provide, says Whaley, “banks need to address the affordability of their services and their disability access—both physical and attitudinal.”
of Americans living with disabilities are unbanked
David Whalen, founder of Disability Awareness Training in Williamsville, N.Y., covers all disabilities in his employee etiquette training—sensory, physical, cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, ADHD/learning disabilities and mental health disorders.
“Everyone needs disability awareness training, because discrimination against people with disabilities—ableism—is rampant, however unintentional it may be,” Whalen says. “First and foremost, respect a person for who they are, not for what they are. That starts with using proper language: People-first language should be incorporated when interacting, except in the cases where identity-first language supersedes it.”
Much of the etiquette is disability-specific, he says. For someone who uses a wheelchair, be at eye level. Have patience with a person who has a speech disability.
“If a person with a disability becomes inhibited, they may get flustered and lose concentration,” Whalen says. “They may have come in to apply for a loan, but then they become more concerned with how the bank staff is interacting with them.”
His training also includes dispelling the misconception that people with disabilities can’t do something independently, so they should have an aide to help them.
“Misconception of a disability is generally negative, when, in fact, it is a natural part of human existence: They must not be able to work, so how can they pay back any loan? That’s ableism at its worst, as many people with disabilities live independently and work successfully,” Whalen says.
The role of disability awareness training
Given that one in four U.S. adults has a disability, disability awareness training can benefit frontline bank employees, says Leslie Wilson, executive vice president, Global Workplace Initiatives, Disability:IN in Alexandria, Va. “As a customer, imagine how refreshing it would be if the person responding to a customer service call from a [customer with a disability] knew who to direct the customer to who could help them with their specific accommodation,” Wilson says.
She notes that it’s also critical that employees understand the importance of ensuring that the bank’s physical sites, as well as the digital technologies and resources used at those sites, including ATMs and digital platforms, such as kiosks, are accessible.
“When unsure,” Wilson says, “instruct employees to ask how they can meet the needs of someone [with a disability]. Individuals with disabilities are the best judges of what they need.”
The importance of accessibility
If a bank wants to serve people with disabilities, physical and digital accessibility is key, says Thomas Foley, executive director at the National Disability Institute in Washington, D.C.
Physical access can include a ramp to the front door rather than stairs or an auxiliary entrance through a loading dock or back room, doors and hallways wide enough for a wheelchair to maneuver, electronic door-opening mechanisms, lowered counters and ATMs that a wheelchair can comfortably access. “Access to sign language interpreters, TTY lines and telecommunications relay services for those who are deaf or hard of hearing [is also important],” says Foley.
He notes that digital accessibility allows blind and visually impaired people to use a screen reader to vocalize a bank’s website or mobile applications.
Use of headings, alt text, labeling of buttons, form field descriptions and closed captioning are other necessary equal-access considerations, according to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative.
Community banks should also work with people with disabilities to design marketing and outreach campaigns “that speak to them,” and develop products and services that are specifically responsive, Foley says.
“Many forward-thinking banks have recognized that inclusion is good business,” he says, “and that people with disabilities are a significant portion of the low- and middle-income community.”
Tips for disability etiquette
Cut out and keep these guidelines from consultancy Disability:IN
General dos and don’ts
- Ask before you provide assistance
- Offering assistance in broad terms, such as “Let me know if you need anything,” opens the door without assumptions of inability
Individuals with mobility disabilities
- Do not touch a person’s mobility equipment
- Be sensitive about physical contact in consideration of possible pain, balance, or post-traumatic stress issues
- Always direct your conversation that is meant for the person with a disability to them and not to their personal assistant, interpreter, companion or colleague
Individuals who are blind or low vision
- Identify yourself when approaching the person or entering an ongoing conversation; announce when you leave the conversation or the room
- When serving as a sighted guide, offer your arm or shoulder rather than grabbing the person’s arm or pushing the person from the back
- Resist the temptation to pet or talk to a guide or service animal; ask the person if there is a time when you can interact with the animal
Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing
- Gain the person’s attention (e.g., tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm or make a hand signal)
- If the individual uses a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the person, not the interpreter; keep your eyes on the individual, especially when the interpreter is voicing for them
- Face the person and speak in normal tones
Individuals with speech disabilities
- If you do not understand what the person is saying, ask them to repeat what they said and then repeat it back to ensure you understood
- Do not speak for the person or finish their sentences
- If the conversation is not working, ask if you can try with writing (electronic communication devices, paper and pencil, etc.)
Individuals who have non-apparent disabilities
Help to accommodate mental health disabilities, learning disabilities, autism spectrum, ADD/ADHD and post-traumatic stress, etc.:
- Moving to a quiet area
- Rephrasing what you said
- Changing the pace of the conversation
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a writer in California.