By Collins Nweze
Inclusive banking is one concept that financial sector gladiators are never tired of discussing. But in practice, not much is being done to advance the practice and improve the banking experience of customers, especially the visually-impaired customers of banks. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN’s) exclusion of braille feature in the three newly redesigned naira banknotes for easy identification by the visually impaired was a case in point. Rejection of demand by the visually impaired to have Braille and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) features added to internet banking applications and outright refusal by many banks to issue Automated Teller Machine (ATM) cards to them are pain-points that erode customers’ confidence in the financial system. Assistant Business Editor, COLLINS NWEZE captures blind customers’ pains in accessing financial services and stakeholders’ inability to meet their expectations
At 54 years old, Olurotimi Olubodede, a PhD student at the Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nasarawa State, has shown little or no interest in the three redesigned naira banknotes now in circulation across the country. The new banknotes – N200, N500 and N1,000 denominations – were launched by President Muhammadu Buhari last month in Abuja. The banknotes were last redesigned in 2005 (17 years ago), with the latest exercise meant to mitigate counterfeiting risks.
For Olubodede, who was born blind, the new banknotes are just pieces of paper that can hardly meet the financial needs of the blind or visually-impaired customers of banks. His argument was that the new naira banknotes were printed without braille features that make them identifiable to the blind. Olubodede, who is a Senior Lecturer in Mass Communication Department, Adekunle Ajasin University, Ondo State, was angry that the interests of 1.2 million Nigerians who were born blind or became blind in the course of their lives, were not considered in the redesigning and issuance of the new banknotes.
He said the absence of braille feature in the new naira banknotes has added to several complex obstacles making it difficult for the blind to access banking services. “Discrimination on the grounds of visual impairment – including failure to ensure equal access to financial services as seen in the new naira banknotes – violates universal human rights. “I will continue to fight with banks over these restrictions including outright denial of digital banking services to the blind,” he stated.
He lamented: “I have, in the past, lost funds for not differentiating between the different bank notes and that will continue because of the deficiency in the new banknotes. We are supposed to have equal access to all banking tools, including the naira banknotes, but that is not the case.”
Anthony Chijioke, a visually-impaired motivational preacher from Imo State, also narrated his ordeal with the naira banknotes. On relocation to Lagos State, he had refused to go into the streets for begging and opted for selling kerosene and telecom recharge cards in Ajao Estate, Lagos state. He narrated how he lost money and subsequent closure of both businesses because some customers gave him N200 and took recharge cards worth N500, because he could not differentiate between both naira banknotes.
Chijioke said the kerosene was sometimes stolen and over time, it became very difficult for him to re-order new stocks. “I cannot differentiate between the different denominations of the naira notes. Some customers will come and give me N200 note and claim it was N500 and take goods of N500. Within a short period, I lost my capital, and the businesses closed down,” he narrated.
He added: “I believe I will one day, regain my sight. If I get to the right hospital, I believe God will use the doctor to open my eyes, and I will see and these problems will become a thing of the past.”
Former President, the Nigeria Association of the Blind (NAB), David Okon, who is also blind, voiced his concerns too: “We are not aware of any improvement on the new banknotes because the visually-impaired cannot identify a naira note based on colour. Besides, the CBN can only make something to benefit us if it knows our concerns. The management of the CBN has not shown any interest in our plights,” he said.
Okon, who is a staff of First Bank of Nigeria Limited, added: “The banknotes are all the same texture, size, and so on. I always arrange my naira notes and keep them in different in pockets. There is pocket for N1,000, N500, and N200; that way, I always make purchases with the right amount. Many of us have our secret ways to determine the naira banknotes as much as we can. But these processes are not perfect, and that is why we are advocating for policy change because the naira redesign is making life more difficult for us.”
On his part, the National President, NAB, Adamu Ishiyaku, said banking in Nigeria should be accessible and friendly to the visually impaired but it is not. “Our members have continued to complain about banks refusing to issue them ATM cards. In the US, and United Kingdom, and other advanced countries, the story is different. In those countries, a visually-impaired cardholder will just insert his/her headphone, and the ATM will be telling him/her what to do until the transaction is completed,” he said.
He said exclusion of the visually impaired from regulated financial services has driven many into unregulated, often exploitative, financing platforms where they suffered huge financial losses. According to him, the visually impaired also have challenge using writing pen and the Nigerian banks are not accepting thumb printing. “Many of us have irregular signature, unless we use stamp, which also carries its own risks of being used by third parties. Many of us cannot afford android phones to be able to read bank alerts on our phones. For the visually impaired, banking has become a nightmare,” he said.
He said despite passage of the Disability Act, which gives people with disability an inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals, reports of discrimination from different financial institutions are not addressed by the authorities and banks. “This contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Articles 12 (equal recognition before the law), 9 (accessibility); and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)10 (reduced inequality) as well as the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act of Nigeria 2018,” he stated.
Digital banking suffers setback
Olubodede also lamented that with the advent of technology, everyone is enjoying seamless banking services except the blind. “We have tried to get the banks, including the big ones to invest in technology that protects our accounts and makes it easier for us to transact without the help of third parties to no avail.
“Although I cannot see, I am aware that the banking industry has seen the emergence of digital services that are fast, secure and seamless. Banking has advanced beyond the ‘brick and mortar’ model to one that is digitally-driven with many benefits to customers. Banking is no longer where you go, but what you do.
“There was a time I wanted to change my Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card at Ikare, Akoko, branch of First Bank, in Ondo State, but the branch manager refused to issue me a new card until I brought out my ID card showing where I work. That was when he issued the card, and said: “I am issuing this card because of your working place,” he stated.
Olubodede said ongoing digital transformations in banks are not extended to the blind, who are not only deprived of e-payment services, but the conditions under which they are served, have continued to degenerate, putting their lives and funds at risk. Olubodede said: “In one of the Tier-1 banks, visually-impaired customers were previously given access to online banking platforms, until the bank launched a new technology that disabled the platform. Today, blind customers of the bank can no longer make online banking transfers without exposing their bank details to a third party that will help them to make the transaction. Such practices have denied us our right to privacy and protection of bank our details.”
Findings showed that many banks have stopped Interactive Voice Response (IVR) otherwise known as telephone banking for the blind in order to save cost. Many of the banks also deny blind customers opportunity to have access to ATM cards. Aside from technology deprivation, many banks are also denying the blind access to loans, even when they have collaterals. “These complaints are not fallacious. Series of appeals have been made to the banks to make their services accessible to us. Many of them did not listen. I, therefore, implore the Central Bank of Nigeria to ensure that all commercial banks in Nigeria conform to the international standards by making all their services accessible to visually-impaired customers. All bank staff should be properly trained on how to deal with their visually-impaired customers,” Olubodede stated.
For him, banks have failed to ensure the services they provide align with the lifestyle of all categories of customers, especially the visually impaired, who also constitute a large part of the banking community.
New naira banknotes in perspective
CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, said the introduction of new naira banknotes was a deliberate step by government to check corruption, adding that the regulator is only carrying out its key function as enshrined in Section 2 (b) of the CBN Act 2007. “In recent years, the CBN has recorded significantly higher rates of counterfeiting, especially at the higher denominations of N500 and N1,000 banknotes. Although global best practice is for central banks to redesign, produce and circulate new local legal tender every five to eight years, the naira has not been redesigned in the last 17 years,” he said.
He said the naira banknotes are protected by a number of security features – the raised print, the security thread and the watermark– to enable easy recognition of genuine banknotes. CBN’s Head, Policy Development Division, Currency Operations Department, Amina Halidu-Giwa, said currency redesign was to solve specific challenges bedevilling the naira and economy, and not focussed on the visually impaired.
According to her, such issues are usually considered when the currency is restructured, which could involve adding newer denominations. “We want to solve a problem and we have limited time to do that. Redesigning of the naira is about change of colour or size. The ink itself is a security feature. It is when we restructure the currency that the visually impaired will be accommodated. For now, the CBN only tried to solve some major problems bedevilling the naira,” she said. According to her, global best practice is to redesign banknotes every five to eight years to mitigate counterfeiting risks.
How banks treat the visually-impaired customers
Findings showed that the visually impaired customers of First Bank of Nigeria Limited, Wema Bank, Access Bank, Ecobank Nigeria, Fidelity Bank, Unity Bank, Union Bank, Keystone Bank, among others, have continued to complain about the quality of services they receive from the banks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide with 39 million blind and 246 with low vision. Also, about 90 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries like Nigeria, 82 per cent of them blind and aged 50 and above.
A visually impaired customer of Access Bank and Convener, Hope and Life for Disabled Persons Foundation (HALFDIPEF), Abiodun Erugbaju, spoke on horrendous experience he had during one of his visits to the bank. “How would you feel when you discover that there are no voice guidance and tactile keyboards on the ATMs your bank expects you to use? Or there is no screen reading software in terms of online banking that enables the computer to speak everything that appears on the screen? Or hearing a customer service officer ask a colleague, who will be operating the bank account for him?” These, he said, were some of his experiences in banks, almost on a daily basis.
He went further: “Sadly though, the customer service officer was not even asking me directly; she was asking a colleague. When I heard it, I felt bad, and quickly told her that the question was ridiculous. If you want to ask this type of question, you should ask me. Not a third party that does not know about me. She is not my brother or someone that knows me. Asking a stranger who will be operating my account for me is derogatory. Which means I can’t do that even as a Master’s Degree holder? I brought out four different ATM cards and told the customer service officer that the card she has just given me will make it the fifth that I have at the moment. Then, I told her that she had just insulted me by that question,” Erugbaju, who also banks with Zenith Bank, narrated.
On denial of loans to the blind, Executive Director, African Union for the Blind, a Ugandan working in Lagos and Nairobi, Kenya, Julius Kamya also recounted his experience with Barclays Bank, Uganda, when his request for a $7,000 salary advance loan was declined. He said: “I applied for a loan and they said your organisation did not qualify when we did the qualification sampling. Then I said no problem, I am not qualified, but one of my staff who is not disabled applied for the loan and got it. I am the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation where she works, how come I was not qualified? What is the problem so that I rectify it so that other staff will not be denied when they apply?
“They said I was just not qualified. Then I said, can you put what you are telling me in writing? The bank said no. Then, I contacted my lawyer who wrote them. They sensed there was big trouble when I kept writing them, up to three times. They gave me the loan. I was contemplating dragging them to court, before they responded. They just sensed I was on the move.”
Kamya, who spoke while attending a conference in Ikeja, Lagos, called for continuous advocacy to draw the attention of the authorities to the various challenges faced by persons with disability, especially the blind. He said challenges faced by the blind differ from bank to bank, but the issues have to do with discrimination, poor customer services and outright denial of banking services.
“Some banks don’t think that I am eligible to have a bank account. Some banks do not accept thumb prints, thereby excluding the blind that may not be able to sign with a pen. Sometimes, it may have to do with ignorance by the staff of the banking institution. Some banks even think that as a visually-impaired person, one is not entitled to a loan. There are also issues around bank notes not being accessible to blind users who will not be able to differentiate one currency from another. I have seen these practices in Lagos, Kenya and Uganda,” Kamya stated.
Views from stakeholders
Vice President Cross-Cutting Solutions International Finance Corporation (IFC), Emmanuel Nyirinkindi, said failure to address discrimination and exclusion may cost some economies as much as seven per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). He said that given the pressing need for financial inclusion, the banking industry is expected to lead the way on increasing access to financial services for the visually impaired.
He said a combination of high rates of low levels of financial literacy, inaccessible information on banking products, and disinterest on the part of lenders severely restrict access to finance for visually impaired customers. There is a clear business rationale for banks to promote disability inclusion in their own organizations and more broadly. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for all groups – including the visually impaired – is a clear and present business performance issue. Banks stand to gain from employing more persons with disabilities and fostering an inclusive workplace culture, leading to improved access to a more diverse talent pool, higher rates of employee retention and productivity, greater innovation, and reputational gains,” he said.
First Bank’s Group Head of Marketing and Corporate Communications, Mrs. Folake Ani-Mumuney, once told The Nation that the bank has deliberate policy that takes care of its blind customers. She said the bank has started building wheelchair-friendly branches and will continue to take steps to get more people, including the blind, into the financial system. According to her, the lender has already installed biometric ATM in many of its branches, adding that with that feat, what is needed to open an account is simply the customer’s fingerprint.
She said: “We have deliberate policies for the partially sighted and the blind on employment and we even have some of them as our staff. We are working on getting bank statements on braille and ensure data protection for them. There is a team working on that.”
A source in Ecobank Nigeria, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said the bank’s ATMs have voice prompt that enables visually-impaired customers to carry out their transactions seamlessly. “Our online long term plan is to accommodate people with disabilities and ensure they have the best of services,” the source said.
However, President of the Bank Customers Association of Nigeria, Uju Ogubunka, said banks are not doing enough to ensure that visually impaired persons are financially included. He said banks should make messages about their products and services available to the blind in a manner they can understand them. He called on stakeholders to work towards ensuring the effective inclusion of the blind in empowerment programmes that would have positive behavioural change on their relationship with banks.
Ogubunka, who was former Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) President, said the exclusion of the blind from the design, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of government policies on key issues that affect their lives are highly disturbing. For him, Nigeria banks can develop home-grown solutions to provide quality services to their visually-impaired customers. The banks, he added, can also borrow ideas from advanced countries on how they are meeting the banking needs of their blind customers.
The way forward
Ishiyaku advised that internet and telephone banking services are developed to enable customers who are blind to use them just as easily as anyone else. He also advocated for banks to digitise a particular toll-free number designated for blind customers that can talk and guide users to seamless banking experiences. “We urge the CBN to meet with the leadership of blind Nigerians and other persons with disabilities for a discussion on the way forward to financial inclusion, suspend all financials policies and directives that discriminate against persons with disabilities, create a disability focal persons at CBN to support the bank toward achieving financial inclusive policies in Nigeria and openly apologise to the visually impaired for deliberately excluding them from benefiting from the financial system and other economic empowerment programmes of government,” he stated.
For Erugbaju, what is needed is stakeholders’ dialogue, adding that sitting back and making policies without talking to those directly affected by it, will not produce the desired results. According to Kamya, governments at all levels need to be consulting with disabled persons when making policies that affect their lives and finances. “We have a slogan that says ‘Nothing for Us Without Us,’ meaning that we are the better advocates for ourselves. So, we need to be part of whatever policies that are designed for us. There is also need for more sensitisation in the banking sector so that their staffers look at us as human beings,” he advised.
Olubodede said that for Nigeria to achieve the 95 per cent financial inclusion target set by CBN in 2024, the neglect of visually-impaired customers in the provision of banking services should be addressed. Other stakeholders advocated for the inclusivity and accessibility of blind people’s needs, not just to banking services but also to information, safe use of public infrastructure, public transport system, access to qualitative and functional inclusive education, attainment of fully independent living, inclusion into political and socio-economic activities among others to promote equitable and sustainable society.
The stakeholders equally believed that since the CBN could take certain measures to secure the naira against counterfeiting and other vices, it also has what it takes to add the braille feature to the local currency and protect the interest of the visually impaired. For them, what is needed is for the banks and the regulator to move beyond talks, lift identified restrictions against the blind and bridge the widening gap between the banked, underbanked and unbanked in the country.