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Banks failing to support disabled customers

Our research finds more must be done to improve accessibility of banking services

Banks failing to support disabled customers

A unique Which? survey has exposed the challenges disabled people face when carrying out everyday banking tasks – and the banks that don’t do enough to remove them. 

If you’re one of the 14.1 million people in the UK with a disability, your bank must make services as accessible as possible, yet our research reveals that while some banks go above and beyond to help disabled customers, others are barely meeting minimum standards.

Here, Which? reveals the best and worst banks, as rated by nearly 1,500 disabled customers, and explore the barriers that must be broken down. We also expose the holes in vital information on accessible ATMs and branches.


Best banks for disabled customers

We surveyed 1,494 Which? Connect panel members and panel members of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers in May 2021 to find out how satisfied they are with the service they’re getting from their main current account provider.

First Direct came out on top, with 95% of disabled customers in our survey saying that they’re fairly or very satisfied with the service. It was the only bank to earn the full five stars for online, mobile and telephone banking. Nationwide came second (87%) and was the top-rated provider with a branch network.

Overall satisfaction rating Online Mobile Telephone Branch Comms preference
First Direct (92) 95% ★★★★★ ★★★★★ ★★★★★ n/a ★★★★
Nationwide Building Society (214) 87% ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★
The Co-operative Bank [a] (64) 84% ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★ ★★★
Lloyds Bank (195) 79% ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★
Royal Bank of Scotland (39) 77% ★★★★ ★★★
Halifax (104) 76% ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★
Santander (164) 73% ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★
NatWest (165) 70% ★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★
Barclays Bank (189) 67% ★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★★
TSB Bank (48) 65% ★★ ★★
HSBC (130) 62% ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★
Sample sizes in brackets. A dash (-) indicates we didn’t get enough responses on a particular aspect of a provider’s service to generate a star rating. ‘n/a’ means that the provider doesn’t offer this service. ‘Comms preference’ refers to how well banks respect a customer’s preferred means of communication. [a] Includes Smile, which is a trading name of The Co-operative Bank plc.

Worst-rated banks

Despite being parent bank to First Direct, HSBC received the lowest score from customers (62%), followed by TSB (65%). TSB earned just two stars for both online and branch banking, HSBC earned three stars across the board.

Negative comments from TSB customers cited recent branch closures (82 in 2019 and a further 164 by the end of this year) or criticised its digital services for ‘frequent IT problems’, or being ‘unusable’. There were more damning statements, too – one customer feels that staff ‘talk down to you like you’re daft just because you are in a wheelchair’. Another said that ‘the bank has no idea when it comes to dealing with me being deaf and blind’.

TSB said that it continually works to improve support available to disabled customers, and has recently partnered with the Digital Accessibility Centre to review its mobile app and website.

HSBC UK said it strives to ensure its products and services are fully inclusive, accessible and flexible for all customers: ‘We are actively engaging with customers with disabilities to enhance our digital experiences as well as ensuring our branches are fully accessible.’

What banking barriers do disabled people face?

Banks have a legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers. You should never be asked to pay for these. Here’s what disabled customers told us about their banking experiences:

Telephone banking

Our survey suggests that telephone banking is particularly problematic, with 36% reporting they find it fairly or very difficult to do their banking on the phone. There are services that can improve accessibility, such as SignVideo and Relay UK, but these aren’t available across the board (see ‘Accessible banking services’, below).

Banking in person

By the end of 2021, almost 4,300 UK branches will have closed since 2015, a 44% cut in the network. And 41% of the disabled people in our survey said that they’ve suffered because of closures, rising to 54% of NatWest customers and 58% of Barclays customers.

The branches that remain don’t always meet disabled customers’ needs: 34% told us that they find it fairly or very difficult to use branch services. This rose to 35% for those with non-visible disabilities (such as mental health issues, learning difficulties or chronic pain), and 36% for those with dexterity difficulties.

We found that wheelchair access is particularly limited at Barclays. Only 85% of its branches have wheelchair access, according to its own data. Deaf or hard-of-hearing customers can access hearing loops at 94% of Barclays branches. For all other banks we looked at, it was at least 98%. Inaccessible ATMs are a problem, too. Only 3% of AIB (NI) cash machines are audio-enabled, for example, and only 73% of HSBC ATMs are accessible to wheelchair users.

Other access issues highlighted in our survey include long queues with no seats, limited space for mobility scooters and a lack of disabled toilets.

Digital barriers

Among those who use digital services, around one in 10 told us that they find it fairly or very difficult to navigate their bank’s website (12%) and mobile banking apps (11%). Issues are magnified by the extra security banks require: 18% of people find it fairly difficult or very difficult to use their bank’s security measures, rising to 30% of those with memory difficulties.

These include a Which? member with dyslexia who told us that he finds it hard when banks ask for specific characters from a security password to use online banking and found his bank slow to help: ‘My bank did nothing for a very long time other than suggest that I get someone else to bank for me. It has since introduced an app that works on Android so I can use my phone’s fingerprint reader. I got the impression their staff have little or no training on disabilities other than wheelchair users.’

Several people also reported issues with card readers due to dexterity impairment or difficulty reading the numbers: One said: ‘I have to use a magnifier and get the card screen in just the right light to read it. This takes time (if I can manage it) and the screen blanks out after a few seconds, leaving me to start the process again.’

Communication preferences

Banks should anticipate disabled customers’ needs, yet 14% of disabled customers in our survey rated their banks as fairly poor or very poor at respecting their communication preferences.

A Which? member told us that most of the banks she deals with repeatedly ignore her requests to receive emails rather than phone calls and letters: ‘I have disabilities that mean I often find talking difficult and painful. I’m also somewhat deaf. Despite telling banks this, they continue to bombard me with calls.’

Image of Gideon Hoffman, Which? case study

Gideon Hoffman (pictured above), 46, from London, says that his bank repeatedly fails to acknowledge his strong preference for text-based information.

‘Many call centres are very noisy, so it’s very hard to hear someone anyway. Some do have quieter areas for calls when I mention it, although this is rare. I’ve yet to have a good experience with a regular bank. But I have had particularly appalling experiences recently trying to open a business account with HSBC – the call centre can’t email anything as a matter of policy and you can’t write to it, so you have no choice but to call.’

‘I always ask what alternatives to the noisy call centre they have for disabled customers. None. I always ask how they have adapted their processes for the Equalities Act. Zero recognition or understanding of the question, however I ask. I get the strong impression that this part of HSBC has had zero training on how to deal with disabled customers.’

Banks publishing unreliable accessibility data

Banks are required by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to publish data about their branches, including whether their ATMs are wheelchair accessible or branches have induction loops for the hard-of-hearing.

However, when we looked at the public data supplied by the nine largest UK banks via application programming interfaces (APIs) we found that most have published unreliable information about accessibility.

As banks use this data to feed into their mobile apps or websites, they risk giving customers false information.

Lloyds told us that all branches have hearing loops, yet its API states this figure as only 2%. The bank told us it’s ‘looking into why this is the case’.

Some banks weren’t able to confirm full accessibility data at all. When we asked why, Barclays told us it has ‘different ways of defining services and reviewing the data’; Nationwide said it can only provide data on internal ATMs; NatWest Group said it would need an accessibility expert to assess its ATM data; and Santander told us that it’s reviewing its ATM infrastructure and will update the API on completion.

The CMA told us: ‘We take suggestions of banks not meeting their open banking obligations to provide data on ATMs’ accessibility very seriously, and will coordinate with the Open Banking Implementation Entity (OBIE) about this.’

Take action: how to complain

If you feel that your bank isn’t willing to make reasonable adjustments, make a formal complaint. If it doesn’t resolve this satisfactorily take your case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

The FOS doesn’t have the power to determine if the Equality Act 2010 has been breached (this is a matter for the courts), but will take the Act into account in deciding what is fair and reasonable in relevant complaints.

Accessible banking services

Some simple steps can help make life easier – but which banks offer them?

  • Chip and signature cards If you have dexterity issues or find it difficult to remember a Pin, banks must offer a chip and signature card instead (they should also provide a signature stamp).
  • Accessible debit card These are designed to help blind and partially sighted people. A notch shows which end to insert in cash machines or card readers. Available on request at Barclays and NatWest Group. Offered to Bank of Ireland and First Direct customers as standard. Nationwide started rolling them out in June 2021, HSBC said they will be available from August 2021.
  • Voice-enabled card readers If your bank requires a card reader to generate online banking security codes, ask for an accessible version. AIB (NI), Barclays, Nationwide and NatWest Group currently offer these.
  • SignVideo Most banks offer this British Sign Language interpreting service, except AIB (NI), Bank of Ireland UK, Danske Bank, Metro Bank, Monzo, Starling and The Co-operative Bank. Monzo has been exploring sign video support options and is hoping to bring this to the app soon. Starling said customers can use in-app chat to talk to customer service staff 24/7.
  • Relay UK This text-to-speech app works with your mobile or tablet. Most banks can accept Relay UK calls (this isn’t yet available at First Direct and Metro Bank).
  • Talking ATMs These let you plug in standard earphones and follow the audio instructions. See link.co.uk/consumers/locator for your nearest one.
  • The Sunflower Scheme A sunflower lanyard, sticker or card will let branch staff know you may need more support or extra time. Danske Bank, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, Nationwide and TSB have committed to the scheme.
  • Cards for carers Santander, Starling and NatWest Group have launched cards for carers. Carers will have their own Pin and can shop for you without having full access to your account.
  • Confidential markers Banks should be able to add a discreet note to your account so staff know of your disability when you call or visit a branch. Nationwide said it can offer a contact point for customers who need extra support.

First featured in August’s Which? Money magazine

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