" class="no-js "lang="en-US"> EXCLUSIVE: "Access for all... the inconvenient truth" - Gabrielle Bugat, G+D and Joanne Dewar, The Payments Association in 'The Fintech Magazine'
Tuesday, April 23, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: “Access for all… the inconvenient truth” – Gabrielle Bugat, G+D and Joanne Dewar, The Payments Association in ‘The Fintech Magazine’

The biggest minority group in the world is made up of one billion people with some form of disability, who routinely have their life chances limited by poor access to financial services. Gabrielle Bugat from Giesecke+Devrient (G+D), Milan Šveřepa of Inclusion Europe, Joanne Dewar at The Payments Association and Dagmar Spill from the German Multiple Sclerosis Society sat down to discuss what could be done about it.

It’s not often that the first question a fintech panellist is asked is ‘what do you look like?’. Nor for the audience to be told to close its eyes and imagine someone’s appearance, based on their description and their voice alone.

The point is, that the majority of us take it for granted that everyone else experiences the world the way we do. But the reality is that around 15 per cent of people globally – that’s one billion – live with a ‘disability’ (a word which itself is loaded with interpretation and freighted with potential bias), which may or may not be visible.

Two panel discussions at Money20/20 Europe this year asked why so many financial products and services are designed with no thought to how people in the largest marginalized group experience them – which means they often face barriers to financial freedom. They also looked at how designing products and processes accessible to 15 per cent of the population is not only possible but of benefit to 100 per cent of users.

“What usually happens with accessibility is that it is treated as some sort of an afterthought “

Milan Šveřepa, Inclusion Europe

The first panel featured a line-up exclusively drawn from fintech and banking. But the second was comprised of both payment professionals and advocates for people with impairments. Among them, Dagmar Spill, chair of the German Multiple Sclerosis Society (DMSG), summed up the lived experience for many of the people she advocates for.

“When I started with the DMSG, I was invited to a conference. Standing in front of the hotel, I saw there was this revolving door. A lot of people wanted to get in, and the door was cycling and moving, with the side door closed. And then I saw a man standing in front of me – he was middle-aged, with two sticks.

“I asked him ‘can I help you?’. And he said to me: ‘Yes, and no. No, you can’t help me. Yes, I just need your attention. I want to get into this hotel, and I am not in a situation to get into it, because I am disabled by the circumstances. I am not disabled by myself.’

“This was the moment when I started really thinking about the dignity people have, and the possibility to live their own life without being disabled by others. To think about the concept of accessibility, and to think of it from a new perspective.”

In 2019, a United Nations report found that people with impairments considered 28 per cent of banks in developed countries to be inaccessible. In some emerging economies it was as high as 64 per cent. In the West, there is another important demographic trend driving the statistics.

“In Europe alone, today there are 90 million people who are above 65 years old, and in just a few decades, this will increase to 130 million,” pointed out panel host Gabrielle Bugat, CEO of G+D ePayments. “So we have to rethink how we support the delivery of payments and banking services; we have to think about accessibility and how we can provide a better banking experience.”

In its 2022 study, Bridging The Disability Gap: An Opportunity To Make A Positive Impact, Mastercard described such financial exclusion as a ‘fallout of disability’ that potentially damaged a person’s entire life by restricting access to education, healthcare, and employment. In fact, studies show that people with impairments are up to twice as likely to experience unemployment and poverty. If, just by being more thoughtful about how financial products and services are designed for those who struggle the most to access them, the industry could materially impact those statistics, wouldn’t that be a moral good?

Today’s technology has provided the tools to empower people with impairments like never before. Global standards, such as those developed by W3C, an initiative established by ‘father of the internet’ Tim Berners-Lee to give developers the foundation on which to build inclusive digital user experiences, have been available for some time.

What’s missing, then, is awareness.

Panel member Joanne Dewar, Ambassador for The Payments Association, commented: “It’s not that they (designers) don’t have good intent. We call it unconscious incompetence. But when you have that lightbulb moment, you go from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. You’re suddenly so aware of all the things that you hadn’t really considered before. Then you’re on the journey to really being inclusive.”

AI and chat-bots could be used to make it easy to navigate banking tasks, using text interfaces to assist those with hearing or speech difficulties, as the Mastercard report pointed out. Text-to-speech and speech-enabled digital processes, based on natural language processing (NLP), can provide accessibility for those with visual limitations, making it possible to ‘talk’ to a mobile banking or mobile money menu, rather than use text messaging or apps. Contactless technology enables users to interact with a familiar device, such as an accessible smartphone rather than a kiosk for cash disbursal – they often present difficulties for people with a wide range of permanent or temporary challenges, including some associated with cognitive impairment and poor mental health.

“But what usually happens with accessibility is that it is treated as some sort of an afterthought,” said panellist Milan Šveřepa, director of Inclusion Europe, a Brussels-based organization that works on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

“Once we’ve developed the product or technology, designed the rules and procedures – we’ve described everything and made whatever we are making – only then the company decides (or, more likely, somebody tells them) there are some people with a particular kind of disability that cannot use it. And then the tech people scramble to try to fix it, usually resulting in the addition of some sort of layer over the original, and complicating things for people with other kinds of disabilities.”

Embedding the principles of accessibility for all at the very beginning of the design process, he said, was not just good for the individual and society at large, but for individual businesses, too. That’s not to underestimate the challenge, as the Mastercard report pointed out. It found a huge disparity in accessibility issues experienced by different groups.

“What you very often find is that whilst there may be a specific use case in mind, there’s a much broader opportunity for mass adoption”

Joanne Dewar, The Payments Association

For instance, while only 20 per cent of people with cognitive disabilities found online banking channels easy to use, 80 percent of visually impaired customers did. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of hearing-impaired users found it easy to access mobile banking, compared to only 30 per cent with other physical challenges. Digital wallets were universally difficult to use and people with cognitive disabilities were the least well served of all customers.

Mastercard concluded that with such a diverse range of factors contributing to the lack of financial access for persons with disabilities, financial inclusion required that each form of disability should be addressed via ‘innovative solutions, formulated for specific use cases,’ adding that the varied landscape of opportunities and challenges across regions also necessitated a localized approach.

Designing with any of these groups in mind shouldn’t be seen as an act of charity, but rather a sales opportunity, argued Milan Šveřepa.

“It’s essentially a question of the relevant company trying to reach as many potential customers with their products or services as they can. With the big numbers of people who have disabilities or limitations in society, not providing accessibility, or not thinking of how to make services and products accessible to everybody from the start, is essentially walking away from a huge portion of the customer base.”

That is precisely the message of Purple Tuesday, a global day of awareness-raising that takes place in November every year, on the first Tuesday of the month, organized by UK-based direct payment facilitator We Are Purple. It campaigns for accessibility changes to enhance the relationship between businesses and consumers. In 2022, Purple Tuesday channels garnered 19 million impressions. So far this year, 6,000 organizations, including many in financial services, are signed up to participate across the UK, UAE, USA, Pakistan, and Malaysia.

We Are Purple highlights that the spending power of disabled people and their households worldwide is estimated to be worth $8 trillion – £274 billion in the UK alone – and is increasing by 14 per cent per annum, but only 10 per cent of businesses have a targeted strategy for reaching this segment. In fact, its surveys show 75 per cent of disabled people and their families have walked away from a business because of poor accessibility or customer service. We Are Purple puts the number of people in the world experiencing disability at any given time at 22 per cent of the population, including those recovering from long-term illness.

“People tell me ‘I want to be treated not as a patient, but as me, as a person with a lot of possibilities”

Dagma Spill, German Multiple Sclerosis Society

In a recent interview, its CEO Mike Adams pointed out that, as a group, they have proved to be the stickiest consumers. “If you get it right, you will have brand loyalty from millions of new customers,” he said. “This is a leadership challenge.”

Joanne Dewar at The Payments Association agrees that there is a lack of commercial vision when it comes to designing for people with disabilities.

“I’ve been involved in many innovative propositions, through the years, and fintechs have been brilliant at enabling specific propositions to be brought to market for specific use cases,” she said. “What you then very often find is that whilst there may be a specific use case in mind, there’s a much broader opportunity for mass adoption and it can end up having very broad appeal.”

A compelling example of that outside of financial services is audiobooks, originally designed for people who couldn’t see to read, but now a $5.3 billion mainstream industry. But more usually, it’s a case of accidental reverse application. As G+D’s Gabrielle Bugat noted, contactless cards were originally conceived to accelerate transaction times for the wider population.

“But with the sound a contactless payment makes, it is suddenly a technology that’s accessible for the visually impaired,” she said. “Then we started making a card with a notch [now widely adopted], so that you can recognize which side you have to use it, and began wondering if we could include 3D braille. It turns out that we do have the technology.

“So now you have a secure and convenient payment experience for the visually impaired that’s fully facilitated with the card and the technologies around the card.”

In its report, Mastercard argued that catering to the needs of people with disabilities starts with thoughtfully crafting the user experience in a manner that increases ease-of-use and accessibility, without sacrificing value and function.

“Accessibility is about dignity, independence, integration, and, at the end of the day, equal opportunities “

Gabrielle Bugat, G+D

“It is of paramount importance that products serving persons with disabilities provide a complete and enjoyable experience to the end-user that is as good, if not better than, the services offered to the rest of the population,” it contended.

“A good product is easy to understand, and that is the whole point,” said Inclusion Europe’s Milan Šveřepa. “If any organization wants people to use its products and services, then make that product or service easy to understand and to use.

“The technology already exists, is already in use, and now is at everybody’s fingertips, with tools like ChatGPT, Bing, and other AI. At Inclusion Europe we use AI technologies to generate easy-to-understand text on a regular basis, then validate it with people. That’s been put to use in many cases, including in banking.”

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework for global progress, built on the principle that no one should be left behind, includes seven targets that explicitly refer to persons with disabilities, and six more include persons in vulnerable situations, which include persons with disabilities. It’s another incentive for socially aware financial services providers to embed universal accessibility design principles into their processes. Ticking an ESG box for shareholders shouldn’t be the motivation, though. Ultimately, it’s a matter of empathy and respect for our fellow individuals.

As MS ambassador Dagmar Spill told the panel: “A lot of people tell me, ‘OK, I have a disease like multiple sclerosis, and it is a period of my life where I have to focus on my possibilities and on my losses. Yes, I lost a lot of things, but I get a lot of new possibilities. If you want to be a good ambassador, then tell people that I want to be treated not as a patient, but as me, as a person with a lot of possibilities.”

“Accessibility is about dignity, independence, integration, and, at the end of the day, equal opportunities,” concluded G+D’s Gabrielle Bugat. “As we move towards a more digital and diverse society, payment methods should be simple, secure, and easier for all. “Technology has a crucial role to play in promoting accessibility and inclusion.”


This article was published in The Fintech Magazine Issue 29, Page 82-83

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