The ease and convenience of online banking is something we often take for granted, but the web technology that makes this possible also means a reduction in demand for other ways that such services are delivered. In the case of the financial industry, an increase in online services is often leading to a reduction in the number of physical locations to serve customers.
During the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, the number of bank branches in the U.S. declined by almost 7,700, or around eight percent, according to a report by commercial real estate company JJL. This number is anticipated to continue decreasing over the next few years. The company notes that a major reason for this is the rise of online and mobile financial technology.¹
In fact, the number of retail banking branches that closed in 2018 was 1,947, from 1,919 in 2017, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.²
People now routinely go online to look up account balances, track financial transactions, transfer funds and pay their bills. They can deposit checks and set up alerts to notify them about changes in their account status. What’s more, customers can easily communicate with their financial service provider through the online message center.
But web accessibility is critical if people with disabilities are going to use these services. Approximately 61 million people have disabilities in the U.S., according to the latest figures from the Center for Disease Control.³ When financial websites and apps contain accessibility barriers, it can be impossible for this population to conduct financial activities online like everyone else.
Online services and apps should follow the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1. This ensures that people with various kinds of disabilities can still use these platforms. Unfortunately, research shows there are still many barriers that are preventing people with disabilities from banking online.
What’s standing in the way of full web accessibility in financial services? To begin with, stakeholders in some financial institutions may be misled by myths related to people with disabilities, online accessibility and finances. Let’s explore a few of them.
Myth: People with disabilities already have their banking needs met.
People with disabilities are unbanked and underbanked at a higher rate than the general population. This is detailed in the FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, which also reports that households headed by working-age adults with disabilities are less likely to go online for their banking, and more likely to visit a bank branch and see a teller to access their account.4
However, online financial services, when designed to be accessible, can be highly convenient for members of the disabled community. Some individuals with disabilities face challenges with transportation and mobility, and web-based banking – when it’s barrier-free – removes the need to visit a bank branch. Daily routines often take more time when you are disabled, leaving you pressed for time. But online banking allows you to quickly handle banking transactions. Consider, for example, that your disability means that you communicate by pointing to a letter board instead of speaking, you may find that banking online is a simpler process than getting help from a teller.
If, on the other hand, financial websites do not remove accessibility barriers, the way people with disabilities conduct their financial activities will be even more compromised as time goes on. As mobile banking increases in use, accessibility in mobile environments will be vital. When there are barriers, such as a tiny image that’s too difficult to click on, then the technology becomes impossible to use, resulting in customer frustration.
Myth: Banks have no obligation to improve web accessibility.
Banks are “places of public accommodation” and, as such, are covered under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Financial institutions are required to ensure that people with disabilities can use their services. Increasingly, this has been interpreted as applying to websites, since they have become such a fundamental part of doing business. In 2016, as part of a dispute resolution, the Bank of America signed a legal agreement to make its online mortgage documents accessible to people with vision disabilities.
A lawsuit was recently filed against TD Ameritrade by a customer who claimed that they had trouble accessing the platform with their screen reader. As part of the settlement agreement, the company agreed to “ensure that all feasible components of its website are rendered accessible by certain deadlines, with key features being prioritized,” and pay attorney, court and expert witness fees to the individual.5
here may also be state laws in place that ban discrimination, and therefore compel banks and other financial institutions to provide their services in a format accessible to those who are disabled. The New York State Division of Human Rights conducted an investigation in 2014 and found that 12 banks were in violation of the New York Human Rights Law.6 Unacceptable barriers to online banking were included in the findings, and subsequently all 12 banks agreed to make web accessibility improvements.
Myth: People with disabilities have no need of wealth management services, because they don’t have wealth.
Some people in the financial industry may be laboring under the misconception that people with disabilities, as a group, are living on a low fixed income, don’t possess assets and don’t have much in the way of disposable income. This is clearly a myth.
It’s true that some people with disabilities are living in poverty, and at higher rates than in the general population. However, there are also vast numbers who do not fit this category. Research from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that over 22 percent of disability households have incomes that are four times the poverty threshold, or higher. In fact, there are more disability households included in this group than there are below the poverty line.7 In 2016, the Return on Disability Group calculated that Americans with Disabilities have a total income of about $872.7 billion.8
Remember the baby boomers when considering disability and web access to financial services. Described by the New York Post as the “richest generation in history,” these individuals are increasingly developing disabilities as they get older. This is one reason why financial institutions should avoid thinking that customers don’t have wealth just because they happen to be disabled.
Myth: Online barriers don’t have much impact – and besides, people with disabilities have their own workarounds.
Many people with disabilities do use assistive technology that lets them read screens if they have a vision impairment, or use the keyboard to move around a website instead of using a computer mouse. However, the technology behind these screen readers will only work properly if the website has been designed with them in mind. If, for example, images and forms on a web page aren’t labeled with text alternatives, the screen reader will have nothing to read aloud to the disabled customer.
A 2017 survey published in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal about the Internet, found that many people with disabilities are still routinely frustrated by online barriers in financial services. The authors analyzed survey responses from people with vision disabilities and concluded that “Web and app accessibility for banking and finance is clearly far from where it should be, as is obvious by the high percentage of respondents noting accessibility problems.”9
Survey respondents reported a wide range of issues and concerns. For example, on one banking website, customers had to use a mouse to click selections, which is an impossible task for those with vision impairment. In another case, the website designer included buttons on the screen that lacked text labels, so the screen reader was unable to read them aloud to the user. Problems like these meant the only way customers could conduct their personal banking online was to ask a sighted person to help them, which is an unacceptable compromise and not always easy to do.
Myth: Bank customers with disabilities want the exact same services as everyone else.
Of course, customers with disabilities do want and deserve access to the same services as everyone else. So this isn’t a myth, per se. But it’s not the whole picture, either. People with disabilities may also want and need something very different in their interactions with financial services websites. Oftentimes, individuals have specific financial or banking needs that are related to their experience of living with a disability.
Financial institutions are starting to recognize these needs, prompting them to go beyond merely ensuring that their services are web accessible. They also offer special products and services that are geared to people with disabilities. Examples include:
- financing programs for adaptive equipment and assistive technology
- vehicle loans designed to cover both the vehicle and the accessibility modifications
- an accessibility banking coordinator who is knowledgeable about disability-friendly services
- tax-advantaged ABLE savings accounts
When financial institutions draw attention to those offerings that are tailored to customers with disabilities, it demonstrates that these organizations are aware of their needs. It also shows that they care about doing business with this sizeable group of consumers who just happen to have disabilities.
By developing a dedicated web page to explaining the various ways you meet the needs of people with disabilities, whether it’s accomplished by removing online barriers or offering customized products and services, you’ll attract more business from the disability market and generate more good will, which will further enhance your reputation in the marketplace.
Making Sure Current and Potential Customers Can Access Your Financial Services via the Web
Verifying that your financial services company’s website is accessible for people with disabilities should be a high priority, given that failure to comply with ADA requirements can lead to lawsuits as well as a drop in business. If you lack expertise within your organization to see to this important task, it’s critical to rely on the expertise of a trusted accessibility partner, such as eSSENTIAL Accessibility. We would be happy to provide a demonstration about ADA website compliance. To speak with us about a demo or to learn more about accessibility for your company, get in touch with the team at eSSENTIAL Accessibility today.
- Bank Branches Decrease as Industry Evolves with Technology JLL, 2017
- S&P Global Market Intelligence 2019: US bank branch closures reach another high in 2018
- Centers for Disease Control: Disability Impacts All of Us
- Banking Status and Financial Behaviors of Adults with Disabilities National Disability Institute, 2015
- TD Ameritrade to Settle Blind Woman’s Website Accessibility Lawsuit AdvisorHub, 2018
- National Law Review Jan 9, 2019: Trend of Class Action Lawsuits Alleging Company Websites Discriminate Against Disabled Individuals Expected to Continue in 2019
- Disability in U.S. Households, 2000 – 2010: Findings from the National Health Interview Survey US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 2016
- 2016 Annual Report: The Global Economics of Disability Return on Disability, 2016
- Exploring the Accessibility of Banking and Finance Systems for Blind Users First Monday, 2017
Editor’s Note: This post was updated in September 2019 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.