In an age when life is tightly tied with technology, it is no surprise that most products and services are slowly translated into digital forms. The banking industry is no exception. Technology gave birth to automated services such as online and mobile banking systems. Ideally, these are designed to promote ease and convenience for all types of bank-related transactions. However, reality for some, especially the marginalized, dictates otherwise. What if these products and services become unusable to certain groups of people? What if the diversity of users was not considered? This is where my dilemma in the Philippine banking system started.
Feeling Left in the Dark
Being a totally blind person living in a third world country like the Philippines, the issues concerning inclusion and diversity are still rampant. Different fields such as the banking industry are trying to catch up with the technological evolution around the globe. However, as progress happens, the banking industry misses out on a vital opportunity to inject digital accessibility into their processes.
Despite the complete absence of my sight, I aim to live independently. I currently live in Manila while my whole family is far away in the countryside. This means that I am the one in charge of all my financial transactions – from making money transfers, funds withdrawals, paying bills online, and all other monetary-related matters.
In the Philippines, the entire banking system in my opinion is one of the industries that needs the most urgent attention when it comes to inclusion and accessibility.
If you are visually impaired, whether you are totally or partially blind, chances are, most banks won’t allow you to open your own bank account. They would present you with arguments like you won’t be able to manage your account properly due to the absence of your sight or that you are at a higher risk of being victimized by fraud all because you are visually impaired. If you manage to open one, there are no accessible means of doing your bank transactions independently.
The options available to withdraw funds are over-the-counter bank transactions or via automated teller machines. Unfortunately, these machines are not designed to be inclusive. The majority of them do not have voice assistance, and audio feedback is not available. This means that if you are blind, the only way for you to withdraw your money is to ask for sighted help.
As an alternative, blind customers like me have opted to register our accounts into their online banking system with the hopes that we could access our account independently. A couple of years back, this was highly frustrating because the websites are not designed with inclusivity in mind. The elements are not semantically structured. Content is not so easy to comprehend. Elements like buttons and links are not so easy to find. In short, the general experience for screen reader users is not pleasant or friendly at all.
I remember one time when my debit card expired. To update my card, I needed to update my account information and the only way to do that was to update my details online. I was able to fill out the necessary forms but failed to complete the process because of an issue with the CAPTCHA. I remember asking my brother to submit the form for me. When the form was submitted, I received an email notification where they provided me with a URL where I could track the availability of my debit card. I was terribly confused when I tried to check the status of my card because I was presented with 5 plain sentences. The first 4 gave the impression that my card was still in process but the last one stated that my card was already available for pick up. Deeply troubled, I again asked for sighted help and was told that these 5 sentences were in fact a checklist. The problem is that my screen reader couldn’t identify the check marks before each sentence.
A few years later, I tried to revisit the websites of my bank accounts and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they finally made the site accessible. At least one way of transacting became available for the blind.
These banks have also released mobile applications for their banking services. As an accessibility advocate, I downloaded these apps and again, a couple of years back, I was highly disappointed. Back then, I couldn’t log in without sighted assistance. I couldn’t do transactions because buttons and their labels were not aligned, or worse they were not labeled at all. I couldn’t manage my account because once my password expired or when the mobile app updated and I needed to re-validate my account, the input fields were not accessible. Again, just like in the website, I was glad to know that recently, most of the issues have been addressed. It’s still not perfectly usable and accessible, but at least I can already check my balance and do basic money transfers.
Right to Privacy
One last pressing issue for me is the accessibility of the bank documents such as bills and statements of account. The banks usually send the documents through email. They attach a PDF document and as expected, the attached document is not at all readable by screen readers.
For me personally, I see this as a violation of my privacy. Every now and then, I needed to ask someone to read my entire statement of account and I find that uncomfortable. It saddens me that up to this point, I still experience this in my banks. I find it very timely especially that WCAG 2.1 has already been released. Hopefully the Philippines will also follow through in making documents, especially ones as important as these to be accessible.
It is still a long way to go when we talk about accessibility in the Philippines. Nonetheless, despite the amount of effort that is needed to be put in, it calms me knowing that at least the major banks are taking the lead in taking baby steps to make their products and services more inclusive to all kinds of diverse users.