A Joint Blog from The Viscardi Center and User1st
May 14, 2020
Social distancing, quarantine, and state orders due to COVID-19 is forcing consumers and banks to drastically change banking and payment habits toward more online services. But for persons with disabilities, these online services can present more obstacles than conveniences. Closing the digital divide for persons with disabilities is now imperative to keep financial institutions’ digital doors open, compliance costs down, and all customers happy.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the expansion of online service offerings at banks and credit unions of all sizes. These services range from the ability to research loan rates, to opening new accounts and applying for loans, completing basic transactions, and accessing educational information and financial toolkits. All the more reason to ensure these digital services are accessible to all customers, including those with blindness, low vision, deafness, hearing loss and motor skills impairments.
In fact, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BoIA) has been helping eliminate the accessibility digital divide for people with disabilities around the world for over a decade. It has published a variety of research on website accessibility within the banking industry. Based on findings from one of its testing platforms, BoIA published research in 2018 indicating the banking industry had made strides when it can to making online resources more accessible, but there was still room for improvement. According to BoIA’s benchmark, the average failure rate of the accessibility of online content within the banking industry was 58%. Content can include uncaptured videos, PDFs that cannot be read by screen reader software, inaccessible online forms and more.
In April, the Federal Housing Commissioner announced loss mitigation options for single family borrowers accordance with the CARES Act. Under current COVID-19 conditions, a borrower must be granted forbearance for up to 6 months on their loan if they are experiencing a hardship. Given the heavy dominance of electronic communication to receive forbearance, digital accessibility is even more critical to serve persons with disabilities.
Recently, Citi announced expansion of its COVID-19 assistance to customers, small businesses and other industries. However, if the website doesn’t work properly with a screen reader, then a person with a visual impairment may inadvertently be blocked from this assistance. Online and mobile banking was already growing drastically while physical retail bank branches were shrinking. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, the industry’s total branch count in the U.S. declined by more than 1,500 over the 12 months that ended February 29th. Due to this trend, digital accessibility had already become an important issue for the financial industry.
Under normal circumstances the most common banking activities demand a high level of connectivity – depositing checks, paying bills, transferring funds, checking your balance. Today, banks across the nation are responding to consumers’ economic needs by offering such services as fee waivers; deferred payments for credit cards, auto loans and mortgages; loan modifications; low-rate and zero-rate loans and much more.
For people with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities, the ability to access content and transact business through a website or mobile application can be much more challenging than for those individuals without disabilities.
In this environment, your organization has two choices – either win the battle for the best online service or possibly get saddled with an accessibility lawsuit. Imagine if someone cannot pay their bill online or apply for deferred payments or get that low-rate loan because your website or online application cannot accommodate their screen reader. Digital accessibility lawsuits were already on the rise with more than 500 suits filed before the coronavirus crisis hit.
Digital accessibility ensures you reach the broadest, most diverse set of customers, provides those customers with the services they need, protects your bank’s reputation, improves users’ experience, and reduces your risk of litigation. In addition, it can open up a whole new customer base, leading to increased revenue and product/service development innovation.