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How we’re helping banks and financial services become more accessible

When deaf people and those with hearing loss use financial services such as banks or insurance companies, they want to experience a service that is accessible and inclusive. That doesn’t always happen and some in the sector are working to close the inclusion gap, as RNID’s associate director for digital and innovation, Michael Wilkinson, explains.

RNID trainers delivering a training session in a large office space. Various employees sit around the table with fingerspelling sheets, looking at the trainer.

Trying to contact your bank can be stressful enough at the best of times and can have some negative consequences when things go wrong. People with hearing loss and who are deaf face even bigger barriers to accessing their bank as many communication channels rely on using the phone.

We attended a roundtable in December to discuss these experiences and inspire more change in the financial industry. It was led by Kathryn Townsend, the disability ambassador to the UK Government for banking, and hosted by Microsoft at their London offices.

The roundtable, which was supported by us at RNID, the UK’s leading charity supporting deaf people and people with hearing loss and tinnitus, was designed to be a catalyst for more change in the financial services industry.

The discussion centred around listening to the lived experiences of a small group of deaf people. More research is clearly needed but it was the start of a conversation about the issues people are facing. The stories we were told certainly reflected the findings of the Hearing Matters Report which RNID released back in 2020 (page 69, access to services). 

The key problems

We heard many stories where deaf people had faced exclusionary practices and experienced hardship and an impact on mental health. In summary, the roundtable learnt that the key problems were: 

A lack of accessible formats for key communications

Often letters from banks were written in complex English, with the only alternative formats being for visually impaired people. Customers wanted to see QR codes with links to British Sign Language (BSL) videos. Others experienced situations where they were receiving or being asked to make phone calls. 

A lack of deaf awareness among staff

Customers reported poor experiences with some banking staff who did not have any basic knowledge of how the company could support the deaf customer, such as by making the video relay service (VRS) or SignLive (a digital BSL interpreting service) available to aid communication. Even when the VRS was provided, the customer was unable to make notes and follow the communication at the same time. 

Low levels of confidence interacting with banks

The lack of accessible formats of information and deaf awareness can make people with hearing loss and who are deaf more nervous and fearful when interacting with their banks. It can also mean that they are more susceptible to scams and at risk of being financially exploited.

The impact

It was clear from the roundtable that these problems were having a deep impact on people’s lives, creating additional anxiety and worries.

We heard how: 

  • One couple lost their home 
  • A mortgage customer missed payments and resorted to involving their local MP in a court case 
  • A customer could not understand the letters they were receiving so they were unable to make informed choices and, when they visited a branch, staff were unaware of the VRS, even though the bank provided the service 
  • An insurance customer ended up paying more fees than they needed to, while another was left uninsured during the Covid-19 pandemic because they were unable to renew due to communication issues.

How RNID is addressing these issues

It was clear to me that there are many people in the sector who are keen to change things for the better and some good work has already been done. With Kathryn Townsend’s sector leadership on the issue, we can work together to bring about greater accessibility and inclusivity for customers. 

RNID has developed several ways in which it is helping to improve the situation.

We’re working with banks

We’re working with banks to understand how best to make their services accessible for deaf people and people with hearing loss and tinnitus. Following the introduction of guidance for firms on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers, financial services such as banks have been keen to understand what they need to do to make sure their services are accessible to deaf people and RNID are here to offer insight and recommendations.  

We’re speaking to employers

We’re hosting roundtables with employers from different sectors to understand the challenges they face. We’ve also recently surveyed line managers to understand the issues they have when recruiting and managing deaf staff. The findings were shared at an event at Google’s Accessibility Discovery Centre in January. Further roundtables will be taking place throughout the year. To get involved, contact Claire Lavery on LinkedIn. Claire is associate director of our employment programme. 

We’re providing deaf awareness training

We’re providing training to help companies communicate better with their deaf staff and customers. The training is delivered remotely by people who are deaf or have hearing loss. We run large seminars, smaller group sessions and e-learning modules. Read more about training for businesses and organisations

We’re producing a guide to website accessibility

While many major websites are optimised for people who use screen readers, the needs of deaf people and those with hearing loss are often overlooked. That’s why RNID is producing a guide to making your corporate website more accessible to these customers. We also have an ambition to influence and change the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). We are looking to test the guide with partners in the financial services sector. If you are interested in working with us on this, please contact me on LinkedIn.

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