This is a transcript of an article originally published in The Times on Tuesday 21 February by Laura Whateley.
Banks are routinely discriminating against customers with hearing loss by failing to provide equal access to services, a Times investigation has found. Deaf customers report being regularly inconvenienced and humiliated by banks’ indifference to their hearing loss and the insistence that security measures are carried out by telephone. The Times has received a number of complaints from deaf people about unfair treatment. These include broken hearing aid loops systems, poorly trained and rude staff, a lack of understanding about how text phones work and an over-reliance on spoken answers to security questions. In some cases this has left people stranded overseas without money because their bank has blocked their card.
While many banks provide online messaging services, deaf customers complain that their messages frequently go unanswered, or that banks request them to ‘call in’ to discuss an urgent issue, leaving them with no choice but to find time to visit their nearest branch. The increasing trend for banks to replace counter staff with machines and telephone banking makes deaf customers’ lives even more difficult.
Banks argue that they can use ‘text relay’ or a minicom to communicate over the phone. This allows the deaf customer to type a message that is relayed through an operator. However, the service is available on landline phones only and deaf people report that many bank staff do not understand how it works. Action on Hearing Loss, which has surveyed members about their experiences, said it believes that banks are not treating deaf customers fairly.
Roger Wicks, Director of Research & Policy, says: ‘Some banks are failing people, which can leave them frustrated and isolated, and can lead to them feeling financially excluded. We strongly believe that people with a hearing loss should have equal access to their banking services. We would expect induction loop systems in branches to be working and checked on a regular basis, and textphones are responded to when customers use telephone banking.’
About 10 million people in Britain suffer from some form of hearing problem, according to the charity, and 800,000 people are severely or profoundly deaf. This is a problem that will increase as the population ages. By 2031 it is expected that 14.5 million people will suffer from some kind of hearing loss. If only a few thousand of those suffering from hearing problems took legal action against the poor treatment they receive, the banks could face an enormous bill.
Campaigners say that the industry is acting in defiance of the Equalities Act, which guarantees disabled customers equal access to services, and banks could end up paying significant compensation to deaf customers. Equality lawyers say such failures are leaving banks open to paying millions of pounds.
Chris Fry, a managing partner of Unity Law, a practice specialising in disability discrimination, said: ‘Banks are bound by the provisions of section 29 of the Equality Act. Where a bank’s arrangements, including telephone verification of identity, or the giving of instructions, create a substantial disadvantage for disabled customers, it triggers a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments. Banks must do enough to avoid the disadvantage altogether or to find another way to provide the service.’
He added: ‘The policy behind the Act is not a minimalist one of grudgingly make some provision, but to provide a service as close as possible to that enjoyed by non-disabled customers.’
A typical case for ‘injury to feelings’ under the Equality Act, where someone feels they were treated unfavourably compared to an able bodied customer because of their disability, could result in compensation of as much as £6,000 not counting legal costs. Courts can also order banks to change their practices, at significant cost.
In the landmark case of Allen vs The Royal Bank of Scotland, in 2009, RBS was forced to change the layout of its branch in Sheffield after a customer with Duchenne muscular dystrophy complained that that the branch was inaccessible to wheelchair users. RBS was found to have breached the Disability Act for arguing that Mr Allen should ‘use internet banking instead’. The judge argued that this was not the same service and that the bank must carry out alterations to the building.
The plight of deaf bank customers was raised by Jill Hipson, whose story was reported in The Times money section and below. She was left ‘embarrassed and frustrated’ after the treatment she received from Barclays. After publication of her story, more deaf bank customers wrote in to complain that they too had faced dismissive attitudes to their disability.
The British Bankers Association said it would welcome a discussion with deaf charities on how banks could improve their services. Brian Mairs, of the association, said: ‘The UK’s banks have invested heavily in recent years to ensure all potential customers have full access to their services. On occasions when this fails, it is important to understand why and we would be keen to better understand this group’s concerns. As well as their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act, the banks also have legal responsibilities under the Data Protection Act. At all times they must act to protect their consumers against fraud and identity theft.’
Half of those with hearing loss unhappy with service
Half of deaf people say that they are discriminated against by their bank because of their disability, according to research by Action on Hearing Loss.*
Statistics derived from the charity’s annual survey of its 6,000 members found that 50 per cent are unhappy with the way they are expected to communicate with their bank, and are unable to take full advantage of the bank’s services because of their hearing loss.
The charity says that one of the biggest problems is banks’ reliance on telephone security. Members complain that text phones, used to enable deaf customers to speak to their bank, are often not staffed, and that responses to emails take too long. The Data Protection Act often prevents deaf customers from nominating a friend or relative to speak to the bank on their behalf.
Some 77 per cent of deaf banking customers do all their banking in branch, but only 43 per cent of those said they did so out of choice. The rest would prefer to bank online or over the telephone. Only 41 per cent of respondents said that they found it easy to contact their bank.
Action on Hearing Loss said that this indicated a disappointing level of service that could breach the Equality Act. Roger Wicks, Director of Policy & Research, says: ‘Hearing loss is a growing problem so it is imperative that banks take every step possible to ensure deaf people can access their services without hindrance and that they remain compliant with the Equality Act. We are urging all banks to become deaf aware and we can help by providing training for their staff.’
Action on Hearing Loss also found that banks are failing in their obligation to provide hearing loops in branches to enable those with hearing aids to communicate over the counter. It surveyed 152 bank branches last year and found that in 52 per cent there was either no hearing loop or it was unavailable or not working. Britannia had the lowest proportion of working loops, followed by Halifax and Santander.
Hi-tech fix will work for both parties
Commentary by Chris Fry, managing partner at Unity law firm.
According to Action on Hearing Loss, there are more than 10 million people in the UK with some form of hearing problem, or one in six of the population. If that hearing loss has a substantial effect on day to day life, and has done so for 12 months or longer, then it is termed a disability and is a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010.
Banks are service providers, according to the Act, and are therefore required to take steps to ensure that their services are as accessible as possible, to ensure that deaf customers are not treated ‘less favourably’ than non-disabled customers. Failing to implement reasonable adjustments can result in payments of compensation of between £1,500 and £30,000 for ‘injury to feelings’ under the Equality Act depending on how the treatment affects the customer.
In Jill Hipson’s case she was left stranded mid-deal in a car showroom with a demand to prove that she was deaf but she could not speak to Barclays telephone staff. She was forced to drive to her local branch with the car salesman to prove it. That most have been horrifically embarrassing.
The fact that other readers of The Times have been told that they must call their banks if their cards are stolen while abroad has also exposed other flaws to the banks’ systems. All of these difficulties could disappear with some joined up technology. With increased reliance on IT to streamline transactions it should be easy to ensure that the needs of people requiring alternative communications are met with little or no additional expense. Surely there could be an App designed to facilitate secure transactions for people with hearing impairments?
In Jill’s case Barclays suggested providing her with £250 to purchase a mobile text relay service but only after the intervention of The Times. It is the banks’ legal obligation to bear the cost of reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act and every deaf customers share the right to an adjustment to allow a more accessible service.
The implication of banks failing to provide that are substantial; compensation and sizeable legal fees in each case, not to mention write-offs of penalties for late payments caused as a result of an inaccessible service.
'They didn't listen to my distress'
Jill Hipson’s story
Jill Hipson, of Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire, was distressed and embarrassed by the way Barclays treated her when she tried to buy a car. Profoundly deaf, Mrs Hipson has banked with Barclays for 30 years, and the bank is well aware of her disability. She visited a branch a few days before buying a car at her local garage to warn the bank that she was going to make a big transaction. She was reassured that she would not face any problems. However, when she came to pay for the car the bank called the garage owner to say that Mrs Hipson must authorise the transaction over the phone. As she was unable to do so, the garage owner was forced to drive Mrs Hipson to the nearest Barclays branch to authorise it in person.
She says: ‘I was with my husband at the time of the purchase, but Barclays refused to let him speak to them to confirm that I was indeed deaf and was unable to authorise the transaction over the phone. He was told the Data Protection Act prevented him speaking on my behalf. The Honda salesman showed more loyalty as a customer of five minutes, than Barclays whom I have banked with for many years.’
Barclays offered Mrs Hipson compensation of £250 by way of an apology, £100 of which is to buy a mobile text relay phone. However, Mrs Hipson has been unable to track down the technology and believes that if no longer exists.
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Gurinder Duhra, PR Officer at Action on Hearing Loss, telephone: 020 7296 8057 or email email@example.com
* This statistic was not derived directly from the survey.