Magazine article American Banker

Why This Regional Bank Made Autism-Friendly Branches a Priority

Magazine article American Banker

Why This Regional Bank Made Autism-Friendly Branches a Priority

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Alix

There's no template for making bank branches friendly to autistic people, but Regions Financial is taking a crack at it.

In making accommodations for adults and children with autism and helping its employees to better understand the developmental disorder, the Birmingham, Ala., bank seeks to embrace a group of people who often isolate themselves from society.

The new program is part compliance and part staff training, but there is also a business case to be made for reaching out to affected families.

"If we can create an environment where autistic people and their families feel welcome, where we've had some additional awareness training, maybe it will make their life a little bit easier in dealing with their financial needs," said Kathy Lovell, the Americans with Disabilities Act manager at the $126 billion-asset Regions.

Around 3.5 million people in the United States are thought to have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Autism Society, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 68 children is on the spectrum.

Simon Dermer, a co-founder of the vendor eSSENTIAL Accessibility, said that in talking with corporate executives, he often encounters the misperception that disabled consumers do not have much in the way of financial services needs because they do not have much income.

More than 56 million people in the U.S. self-identify as disabled, and they have more than $645 billion in disposable income, Dermer said, citing a report from the Return on Disability Group. Their friends and family, he notes, have nearly $4 trillion in disposable income, and signaling support for disabled people sends a positive message to their friends and family, too.

"You say 'disability' to a room full of corporate executives, and two things come to mind: doing something philanthropic and abiding by regulatory requirements," said Dermer, whose firm advises companies on how to make their mobile products and websites more accessible. "We're trying to get the organization to look at it as a market opportunity."

Samantha Crane, director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has also seen a lot of increased interest in creating sensory-friendly events and spaces for autistic people, but said that those are often designed with children in mind.

"If Regions is developing these sensory accommodations with customers in mind, and not just customers' children, that puts it ahead of many comparable businesses," she said.

Crane added that in addition to branch accommodations, bankers should know that services like low balance alerts, automatic bill payment and fraud detection, can be extremely helpful for their autistic customers, who might sometimes need extra help setting up those functions.

People with disabilities, and their advocates, often stress that they want to conduct their affairs independently. …

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