Some people living with disabilities eschew banking services because they feel financially underserved or physically barred. Through sensitive customer service, affordable products and ADA-compliant accessibility, community banks can make them feel welcomed and accommodated.

Many people with disabilities don’t have any banking relationships, but that’s not because they don’t want to have them. Many feel like they can’t access needed services—or they just don’t feel welcome.

Community banks can work harder to make both physical branches and digital channels more accessible and ensure employees understand how to interact with people with disabilities so their financial needs can be met with dignity. (See “Tips for disability etiquette” below.)

Feeling welcome

David Whalen, founder of Disability Awareness Training in Williamsville, N.Y., covers all disabilities in his employee etiquette training—sensory, physical, cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, ADHD/learning disabilities and mental health disorders.

“Everyone needs disability awareness training, because discrimination against people with disabilities—ableism—is rampant, however unintentional it may be,” Whalen says. “First and foremost, respect a person for who they are, not for what they are. That starts with using proper language: People-first language should be incorporated when interacting, except in the cases where identity-first language supersedes it.”

Much of the etiquette is disability-specific, he says. For someone who uses a wheelchair, be at eye level. Have patience with a person who has a speech disability.

“If a person with a disability becomes inhibited, they may get flustered and lose concentration,” Whalen says. “They may have come in to apply for a loan, but then they become more concerned with how the bank staff is interacting with them.”

His training also includes dispelling the misconception that people with disabilities can’t do something independently, so they should have an aide to help them.

“Misconception of a disability is generally negative, when, in fact, it is a natural part of human existence: They must not be able to work, so how can they pay back any loan? That’s ableism at its worst, as many people with disabilities live independently and work successfully,” Whalen says.

The role of disability awareness training

Given that one in four U.S. adults has a disability, disability awareness training can benefit frontline bank employees, says Leslie Wilson, executive vice president, Global Workplace Initiatives, Disability:IN in Alexandria, Va. “As a customer, imagine how refreshing it would be if the person responding to a customer service call from a [customer with a disability] knew who to direct the customer to who could help them with their specific accommodation,” Wilson says.

She notes that it’s also critical that employees understand the importance of ensuring that the bank’s physical sites, as well as the digital technologies and resources used at those sites, including ATMs and digital platforms, such as kiosks, are accessible.

“When unsure,” Wilson says, “instruct employees to ask how they can meet the needs of someone [with a disability]. Individuals with disabilities are the best judges of what they need.”

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