Banks are stepping up tech for people with disabilities

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Visitors who enter the JPMorgan Chase branch near Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, will be greeted in two ways simultaneously: spoken English and American Sign Language.

This 10-month-old branch is Chase’s first that is designed to serve the deaf and hard of hearing community. Customers and employees with hearing loss can communicate with others by signing to an interpreter over video and hold subdued conversations with the help of a device that connects to the customer’s hearing aids.

Chase is one bank using technology to try to serve customers with varied disabilities seamlessly. Regions Financial in Birmingham, Ala., adapted programming for autistic customers online; U.S. Bancorp. in Minneapolis considers accessibility from the beginning when designing and testing its digital tools.

“A lot of companies don’t realize the increase in reach you can have by focusing on accessibility,” said Gary Aussant, director of Perkins Access, the consulting arm of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. “Banks need to know that if you’re not focusing on accessibility, you may be shutting out 20% to 25% of your customers.”

This is especially true when trying to hang on to lifelong customers.

“As we age, the likelihood of disability increases,” said Marsha Schwanke, web specialist at the Southeast ADA Center, which provides information and resources on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At the same time, “any of us at any time can acquire disabilities temporarily or permanently,” she said.

Accessible banking is like the gentle depression in the corner of a sidewalk where it meets the road. Curb cuts were created to help people in wheelchairs smoothly navigate streets, but pedestrians find them convenient as well. Now that many banking activities have moved online, readable websites and navigable apps benefit all customers.

“When focusing on those use cases for someone with a disability, you’re actually making the experience better for everyone,” said Aussant.

Online obligations

The ADA, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation — including banks — under Title III.

But websites and apps exist in a murkier zone. The Department of Justice has stated that the ADA applies to the internet, but efforts to establish clear rules have floundered.

“This has left more financial institutions vulnerable to litigation based on standards that are not certain and would probably evolve over time anyway,” said Michael Morris, founder of the National Disability Institute and a senior strategic advisor.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative are a globally recognized and accepted standard.

Some of the basic recommendations call for high color contrast, operability by keyboard rather than just mouse and text alternatives to non-text elements. Website content should make sense when navigated by a screen reader, or software that converts information on a screen to speech or Braille.

Aussant points out that many people who are blind use iPhones, which have a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver. That means banks should ensure their apps work well with iOS devices. (Android devices also have a screen reader called TalkBack.)

Building websites and apps that operate by voice commands also benefits those with motor impairments, who may have difficulty navigating by keyboard. For voice commands to work smoothly, programmatic labels, also called accessible names, should match visible text labels, said Aussant. (Programmatic labels are hidden in code and communicate with assistive technology.)

A customer who is blind may appreciate a remote check deposit feature that automatically snaps a picture when the check is lined up in the frame, or a slight auditory or vibration cue to indicate that the check was deposited successfully.

But to be truly inclusive, banks need to accommodate customers with more complex needs. “There is a growing expectation that people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities will be provided services that are understandable,” said Morris.

Banks of any size can seek out advice and feedback from their own customers, disability-related organizations, independent living centers and regional ADA centers, said Morris. By hiring more employees with disabilities, they can expand their well of ideas from within.

Accessible banking in action

“Historically, [accessibility] has been done as an afterthought, where everyone is happy with an application until someone says ‘what about accessibility’ and there is a mad scramble,” said Ashley Whitney, director at Lab49, a consultancy that focuses on financial services.

U.S. Bank makes accessibility a forethought.

“We’ve tried to shift from where we were in 2015, 2016, 2017, where we thought of accessibility as a reaction, to being more proactive,” said Matthew Luken, user experience director, digital accessibility at U.S. Bank. “We think about accessibility right from the beginning.”

The accessibility team has existed since 2015, but began growing in 2018 and collaborating with other groups across the company, such as information technology.

Luken’s team considered accessibility early on while working on the virtual assistant baked into U.S. Bank’s mobile app. It gathered input from consumers, including those with disabilities, and included people with cognitive, learning, visual and physical disabilities in at-home usability studies.

The language and tone of the app (along with other U.S. Bank products) are meant to be conversational and understandable to everyone, from a user who speaks English as a second language to a customer with cognitive disabilities.

“We want to find that right medium that strikes the balance between all the customers’ needs,” said Luken.

Meanwhile, Regions has won praise for the ways it has accommodated customers with autism, from keeping sensory packs (kits containing items, such as stress balls and noise-cancelling earbuds, to block out sensory challenges) in branches to honing employees’ communication skills.

In January, the $144.1 billion-asset institution was wrapping up development of an interactive financial educational program for autistic adults. Kathy Lovell, senior vice-president, disability services and outreach manager, created it with Triumph Services, a nonprofit in Birmingham that helps adults with developmental disabilities live independently.

The program was meant to be delivered in person, complete with hands-on activities — for example, taping a card with a “fixed” or “variable” expense to the correct poster — but there wasn’t time before social distancing requirements set in. Instead, Lovell adapted it to Webex in August, adding more questions to engage participants. The program recently underwent beta testing.

“Although this was not the intent of how we wanted to deliver the training, it worked very nicely,” said Lovell. “Now we know we have the options of delivering it in person or using technology.”

On the digital side, the bank has spent many months updating its mobile app and managed to test it on participants with vision impairments shortly before the pandemic shut down in-person work.

“This was instrumental in building empathy from the development team, to understand that what they are building can impact other people,” said Krissy Scoufis, the usability, accessibility and user research team manager in digital banking at Regions. For example, testing helped them ensure that actionable items were clearly labeled and that content was structured well for a screen reader.

Developers, user experience employees, and others observed testing from a “war room” so they could solve problems in real time.

“It was exciting to see some of the developers observe users running into a problem, hop up and go to their desks in the middle of the user testing, return to the room not long after and yell, ‘I fixed it!’” said Todd Keith, experience and innovation team manager in digital banking at Regions.

As convenient as online banking is, accessible branches are important too.

“Many people with disabilities say they like going into local branches because they’ve built a social relationship with the teller or office manager,” said Morris of the National Disability Institute.

At the Chase location in Washington, “one of the best things we have for customers and employees are iPads equipped with the Sorenson app,” said branch manager Diana Jimenez. The Sorenson Video Relay Service lets customers and employees with hearing impairments dial a number to summon a live interpreter, as if over FaceTime, who will verbalize the message they are signing to the person on the other end of the line.

Diana Jimenez, branch manager of the Chase bank branch near Gallaudet University, cutting the ribbon
Although customers who are deaf or hard of hearing can find ways to converse at regular JPMorgan Chase branches, the interpretation services and other features at this branch make for a better interaction, says Diana Jimenez, branch manager of Chase's first branch designed for the deaf community (holding scissors).

The branch, which was built in partnership with Gallaudet University, a private school for the deaf, also uses an on-demand video remote interpreting service from provider TransPerfect to facilitate conversations between clients and their bankers. Bluetooth microphones are installed at transaction windows and quick-service “booths” so hearing employees can have quiet conversations with customers who are equipped with Bluetooth hearing aids. More low-tech accommodations include reflective panels on the booth that reveal shadows and clear face masks for employees.

Four employees in the branch are deaf or hard of hearing; another five are hearing, including one who is fluent in ASL, and there are two in-house interpreters.

Jimenez, who is hearing, mentions that one couple came all the way from Richmond, Va., a two-hour drive away, to visit this branch.

“The way I explain it to my team is, my first language is Spanish. My parents and I speak English but my parents especially will go anywhere for someone to help them in Spanish,” said Jimenez. “The client can go to any bank and pass notes back and forth or do whatever they need to do to communicate, but it’s that comfortability of having someone I can clearly communicate with. It’ll be a better interaction.”

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Digital banking Consumer banking JPMorgan Chase Regions Bank U.S. Bancorp U.S. Bank Digital Banking 2020 Branch banking Virtual assistants Customer service ADA