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A New Financial Access Frontier: Persons With Disabilities

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Can a person with a disability living in a developing country become the valued client of a financial institution? According to Harvard Law professor Michael Stein, 650 million people around the world, nearly 10 percent of humanity, have a disability, and over 80 percent of these people live in developing countries. Yet, in research studies, fewer than 1 percent of the clients of microfinance institutions, dedicated to serving the world's financially excluded people, were found to be persons with disabilities. One of the last great human rights struggles is only now starting to penetrate the world of low-income finance.

But how best to make progress in disability inclusion?

In June, the Center for Financial Inclusion at ACCION, in conjunction with the Disability and Development team of the World Bank, brought disability activists together with leaders from microfinance in a roundtable entitled, "A New Financial Access Frontier: People with Disabilities" to begin a dialogue. Disability activists and microfinance professionals are two tightly knit communities with their own vocabularies and their own ways of seeing the world so it is not surprising that at times heated debate preceded agreement on clear objectives.

In 2006, the passage of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gave the disabilities community a major boost. This Convention requires all ratifying governments to "promote, protect and ensure" the rights of persons with disabilities. 2010 also marks the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, and implementers of that landmark legislation testified to the remarkable changes it has brought about. Unyielding commitment to the human and economic rights of persons with disabilities is the lifeblood of many people in the disability community. The activists carry this message to financial service providers: Financial service providers wake up and act! It's a matter of human rights, and it's the law (in 85 countries).

The microfinance professionals, for their part, were happy to acknowledge the justice of the cause, and admitted to being somewhat abashed at their own ignorance. But, they approach the topic with a certain "Show Me" wariness. Their dedication to reducing financial exclusion notwithstanding, they want to be convinced of a business case for inclusion of persons with disabilities that is realistic and sustainable. Moreover, the U.N. Convention, though perhaps an interesting sign of the times, is certainly not a mandate they feel direct pressure to fulfill.

Once the two sides got past their introductory positioning, they began a fruitful search for strategies that might work. Listening, it struck me that the biggest barriers are less practical than about attitudes. Yes, physical accessibility matters, but in the context of developing countries, accessible design in a bank branch means little if the road to the bank is unpaved and pot-holed. Technologies like mobile phone banking and voice-enabled ATMs could overcome physical barriers at a stroke. They generated much hopeful enthusiasm, even though they have yet to be used widely to reach low income or disabled clients.

But negative attitudes are the real tough nut to crack, for both prospective clients with disabilities and for microfinance providers. Many person with disabilities have experienced so much societal exclusion and marginalization during their lifetimes that they often lack the confidence to approach financial institutions or to even conceive of themselves as microentrepreneurs. Disabled persons organizations (DPOs) and other disability rights organizations work on overcoming such barriers, both societal and self imposed, and help prepare their clients to connect with mainstream institutions, among them financial.

On the provider side, staff are often the perpetrators of exclusion, simply because they have absorbed the culturally prevailing images of people with disabilities as not competent or unable to handle financial responsibilities. In some cases, laws still create roadblocks, for example, if blind people are prevented from signing contracts they cannot see. Cultural attitudes may be starting to shift, thanks to the Convention.

Both sides agreed that persons with disabilities do not need special financial products to succeed, even though they may need flexible accommodation to help them access mainstream products.

A number of microfinance specialists reminisced about specific clients with disabilities. They reported that these were solid clients: resourceful people who knew how to overcome challenges and who were happy to receive a chance from a bank. When they talked about these clients, they sounded a lot like the early advocates of microfinance two decades ago, countering the objections of mainstream banks to serving the poor. In those days, the microfinance activists insisted that the poor and excluded were capable of being responsible clients. One hundred and fifty million microfinance clients later, the bet on the poor has proved sound. Round-table participants are preparing now to make similar bets on people with disabilities.