Born with visual impairment, Adnan surmounted incredible odds to complete his education and obtain a job, when he came up against another one — of opening a bank account.

As age advanced, Tara realised that her hearing was becoming weak, adding challenges to daily life, as well as making her regular bank visits difficult. And after an unfortunate accident, Mark was back at work but his impaired mobility left him dependent on others for as simple a thing as withdrawing cash from an ATM.

An estimated one billion people globally, or one out of eight persons live with some kind of disability, according to the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO).

Many of them, in addition to their daily travails also face the hardship of being locked out of basic financial services due to various barriers. Disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing and speech related complications, reduced mobility or cognitive issues make everyday banking tasks such as signing up for an account, writing a cheque, using online banking or paying with a card difficult, if not impossible, for customers.

Banks are making a difference

Banks across the world are increasingly making accessibility and inclusion an integral part of their priorities. TD Bank in Canada, for example, provides account statements in a variety of formats including Braille, large print or audio files, as well as large print cheques with raised lines that can be oriented by touch. UK’s Halifax Bank allows customers with dyslexia or related disorders to change the colour of their websites when they browse to make it easier to read. In the US, Bank of America provides loans to people with disabilities to facilitate easy purchases of accessible vehicles.

In the UAE, research conducted by Emirates NBD points out that apart from addressing the physical aspects, it is equally important to ensure that customers with disabilities are assisted by employees with the right skills and attitudes and who are able to serve the customer with empathy and care.

Technology lends a helping hand

Technological advances are increasingly enabling enhancements that were not possible earlier. Voice-activated ATMs now help customers who cannot read the screen to use the machine with audible information delivered through a telephone handset and supported by speech recognition software. Audio tokens help navigate online banking for individual or business customers in an easier manner.

Mobile banking apps now accept verbal instructions that help customers with mobility issues to carry out transactions from home. Wrist bands allow customers to make contactless payments at shops without having to swipe a card. Hearing loops in bank branches cuts out unwanted background noise and help amplify sound for customers with hearing disabilities to carry out a conversation. Real time sign language translation software allow bankers to engage with customers with speech difficulties easily, as in Emirates NBD’s Emirates Towers branch in Dubai.

Government policy as foundation

While access to education, employment, health and physical infrastructure are necessary components of equitable development, access to financial services can ensure greater inclusion. This is why governments and global developmental institutions are focusing on making this a priority for the banking sector.

The United Nations mandates equal rights for people with disabilities in managing their financial affairs and access to bank services. In the UAE, policies such as the National Strategy for Empowering People with Disabilities have laid the groundwork for providing greater financial accessibility to people with determination. Additionally, last year, the Dubai Universal Design Code was launched, requiring buildings including bank branches to provide full physical access to all as part of their design. About a third of Emirates NBD’s branches in the UAE are now disabled-friendly with automated doors for enhanced mobility access, low-height ATMs and cheque writing counters, tactile floor indicators and designated parking spots.

Banks and other organisations are also stepping up hiring of people with determination as they find them to be more committed and enthusiastic about their work while being great morale builders.

Where there is a will, there is a way. Banks that seek to match step with people of determination will stand to become not only the financial provider of choice for this substantive customer segment but also an inclusive employer and a truly embedded bank in the community.

— Suvo Sarkar is the Senior Executive Vice President & Group Head — Retail Banking & Wealth Management at Emirates NBD