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HDFC Bank takes important first steps to make facilities accessible for disabled customers

Under RPWD Act 2016, it is mandatory for all public facilities and amenities, including banking, to be made accessible. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has come up with parameters that set down accessibility standards to be followed by banks in the country.

Compliance, however, is a tricky matter, with most banks going slow in this regard.

Which makes recent measures by HDFC Bank to improve banking facilities for disabled customers a welcome step. Some of them are still works in progress but broadly they include:

  • EMV chip-based cards for blind customers to enable ATMs to provide audio prompts for transacting.
  • Search filter on the HDFC website so customers can locate ATMs that support this feature. At present, this is limited to HDFC Bank customers.
  • Mobile banking apps made more accessible.
  • E-statements readable for all users, including blind customers with screen readers.
  • Work in on to improve internet banking, cheque clearing using thumb impression, using banking facilities in non-home branches using thumb impressions as signature.

All this is a culmination of a two-year effort by Mumbai-based lawyer Amar Jain who worked with HDFC Bank to improve the banking experience for disabled people. Jain, who is visually impaired is an HDFC customer since 2013. While the law recognizes thumb impressions as valid signatures, his initial requests for debit and credit cards were rejected by ground staff as he was "risky". Jain had to approach senior management for relief.

In 2017, when Jain's request for a credit card upgrade was rejected for the same reasons, he took the matter up in right earnest.

If you can give someone a card, how can you deny them an upgrade? That became a turning point. Since then, I have been working with HDFC Bank on this issue. - Amar Jain, Lawyer

Over the last two years, Jain held meetings with senior HDFC Bank officials to raise the issues faced by customers with disabilities.

"Like there is a special card for blind customers for ATM use, but these were not migrated into the system. They issued a special card for me and I informed others as well. I also alerted them to issues faced by non-HDFC Bank customers and they rolled out a process where all customers could use the card. They are in the process of fixing the mobile banking app and net-banking facility as well".

Big Picture

Commendable steps no doubt but ensuring uniformity across banks is a challenge.

"Even opening an account is a challenge," says Sunil Sangtiani, a visually impaired entrepreneur in Jaipur. "Most of the time, we have to fight. I used to have an account with ICICI Bank, and I was denied a current account because they refused to accept thumb impressions. I had to learn how to sign. Then they changed the interface and I had to depend on other people for help. I then opened an account with HDFC Bank but here too I face issues with getting checkbooks, debit and credit cards."

Facilities apart, there is a need to build greater sensitization among bank staff, points out Jitendra Solanki, a financial planner, who specializes in advising families with disabled relatives.

"Two years ago, I was at a bank in Dehradun when a deaf person walked in seeking a loan", says Solanki. "There was no interpreter around and no staff member could understand him. He spent almost an entire day trying to get someone to understand him. For that matter, take the case of someone with dyslexia, for whom filling up a form is a struggle. Most executives sitting at the front end would not know how to help as they are unaware of the problems of disabled people. Inaccessibility is an issue, so is sensitization."

Budding lawyer Maitreya Shah concurs. This visually impaired student from Gujarat was denied a checkbook even though he had a current account.

"The bank said I could not use checks though the rules say I have all access. The reason they came up with was that they did not have the technology to verify thumb impressions. They also sent me an internal bank circular which said visually impaired customers are divided into literate and illiterate, with those using thumb impressions branded illiterate. I am a law student, so how does the label of illiterate apply to me? The RBI rules had been interpreted by the bank officials in this way!"

What such instances highlight is a larger failure on the part of all service providers and product manufacturers to look at disability inclusion as part of their business accommodation. Time for an attitude change, says Jain. "It is high time customers with disabilities are recognized as equal and important stakeholders, who should not be left behind.

ALSO READ: 6 by 6 - BarrierBreak's amazing new app helps visually impaired people identify currency

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