A Massachusetts community bank is breaking ground in consumer lending, offering low-interest loans for people with special needs and disabilities.

Central Bank, a $324 million-asset institution in Somerville, began offering loans last week to help disabled people buy motorized wheelchairs, wheelchair ramps, specialized computer equipment, and other devices that could improve their lives.

"People who are in serious accidents may have to buy wheelchairs or enlarge the doorways in their homes," said Gladys Partamian, vice president and head of the bank's Community Reinvestment Act division. "It can be costly."

The cost of a motorized wheelchair ranges from $3,000 to $15,000, according to disability groups. A van with wheelchair ramp can cost as much as $37,000.

"The financial burden of having a disability can be overwhelming," said John Fioriti, program director of the Greater Boston chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. "A loan like this can go a long way to helping people lead more normal lives."

Officials at disability groups said Central Bank, with eight branches in the Boston area, is the only community bank in the country offering such loans. San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp., the nation's third-largest banking company, offers similar loans.

Yet although Central Bank's program is getting praise from disability groups and bank analysts, Ms. Partamian acknowledged that the bank isn't likely to profit from the fixed-rate loans.

"We're a community bank, and we just feel this is a segment of the community that's been forgotten," she said. She added that repayment periods on the loans will be longer than normal to ease the burden on borrowers.

One bank analyst said the prospect of just breaking even shouldn't deter other banks from offering similar loans to disabled people, who number roughly 49 million in the United States.

"It's really a nice thought," said John G. Cornwell, a bank and thrift analyst at Cleary Gull Reiland & McDevitt Inc. in Milwaukee. "We all know that prejudice can take someone out of the game that otherwise might have done very well."

Besides, he added, if the bank is able to tell "heartwarming stories" about loan recipients, it may end up making more money than expected.

Calls are already pouring in, thanks to a surprise plug by a Boston radio personality. Unknown to the bank or its advertising agency, WBZ-AM radio reporter Anthony Silva mentioned Central Bank three times during a recent call-in show. He also plugged the loan program on WBZ's television affiliate.

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