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Technology can accelerate financial inclusion for persons with disabilities, finds Mastercard study

A compassionate approach to the financial needs of persons with disabilities, supported by innovative technology solutions, has the potential to address the needs of the most vulnerable members of society across the Middle East and Africa, according to the latest white paper from Mastercard.

The study, Bridging the Disability Gap: An Opportunity to Make a Positive Impact, reveals that digital inclusion is the pathway to financial inclusion for persons with disabilities. As governments adopt and prioritize policies to improve accessibility of services, this paves the way for public and private sector financial institutions, mobile network operators (MNO), fintech providers, and other organizations to develop and apply solutions.

Umar Hashmi, Vice President, Global Product and Engineering, Mastercard, said: “At Mastercard, we are a purpose-driven organization and put into practice our belief in ‘doing well by doing good’. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of who we are, and we bring this to life by deploying products, services, and partnerships that are aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), based on ‘leaving no-one behind’.”

According to the latest available data, one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, constituting the largest minority group in the world. Types of disabilities include visual, hearing, speech, mobility, cognitive, and psycho-social.

A combination of physical constraints in accessing financial institutions and services prevents many persons with disabilities from banking independently. Depending on the type of disability, this includes being unable to travel to and enter a financial institution, branch, or ATM, not perceiving and understanding what is written on paper or electronic devices, being unable to hear, understand, and communicate with banking service providers, and being unable to access paper or digital content.

The paper includes real-life case studies of persons with disabilities having to depend on others to perform simple financial tasks. One interviewee said: “You should be able to access financial services in privacy; no one should know the details of your banking transactions, your balance, and how much you are spending.” Others spoke about how access to services digitally would make a significant difference to their financial independence.

A 2019 UN report cites data that show persons with disabilities consider 28% of banks in developed countries, and between 8% and 64% banks in some emerging economies, to be inaccessible.

However, measures are being taken to address this, at the government and corporate levels. The UAE has enforced a federal law concerning the Rights of People with Disabilities. Emirates NBD bank has imparted Disability Equality Training to over 2,100 of its staff and has also taught them American Sign Language. The bank’s Disability Friendly Branch project, implemented in 2016, aims to facilitate and ease the banking experience. The three-phase transformation integrates infrastructure, technology, and services to enable and enhance accessibility.

According to the Mastercard white paper, in the Middle East and Africa, using digital inclusion as the pathway to financial inclusion for persons with disabilities must involve reducing the gap in smartphone ownership, mobile internet usage, and digital literacy.

Approximately 63% of the world’s population is now online since the pandemic. Research in select low- and middle-income countries in the Middle East and Africa shows that, despite a large mobile disability gap, widening at each stage of the user’s journey, 62% of adults with disabilities own mobile phones and 21% own smartphones.

The emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and the internet of things – have the potential to be delivered through apps and web-enabled services. This makes it possible to address the accessibility gap in financial services.

Technology is making financial services more accessible

Since a diverse range of factors contributes to the lack of financial access for persons with disabilities, financial inclusion requires that each form of disability be addressed via innovative solutions, formulated for specific use cases.

While solutions by stakeholders with an international presence, such as Mastercard, have the potential to be applied globally, the varied landscape of opportunities and challenges across regions necessitates a localized approach. For example, in much of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, a mobile-first approach to financial inclusion has proven effective. Some solutions suggested are:

  • The use of mobile banking – especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of the ‘new normal’ – has given rise to user interfaces that are uncluttered, simple, and distilled to display core information in a user-friendly manner.

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and chat-bots are bridging the information gap by helping customers navigate banking tasks using conversational interfaces.

  • Contactless payments promote greater enablement, not only in stores but also at ATMs. Users can choose to interact with a familiar device such as an accessible smartphone rather than the kiosk when requesting cash withdrawals.

  • Text-to-speech or speech-enabled digital processes based on natural language processing (NLP) have profound implications for accessibility for those with sensory limitations. Intuitive, personalized tools such as those that implement debit card spending controls and transaction monitoring can prove valuable for financial independence.

Hashmi further said that Mastercard’s Product and Engineering division takes a customer-centric approach to solving problems. Labs as a Service, for instance, hosts innovation teams working on new solutions and experiences. Using ideation and concepts, the team helps distil solutions and develop prototypes that can be tested for real-life scalable applicability.

The approach is designed to onboard as many people as possible into the digital economy. In addressing the needs of persons with disabilities, there is a clear opportunity for the industry to work collaboratively to make a positive impact on millions of lives across the world.


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