Vashkar’s drive for disability-inclusive banking services

Vashkar Bhattacharjee

Visually-impaired Vashkar Bhattacharjee is a client of a private bank for over a decade. He had gone to the bank to apply for a credit card, but the bank denied their services. Vashkar emailed the bank authorities asking for reasons of their denial.

Vashkar waited but did not receive any answer from the bank. They ignored his inquiry. Having no response, Vashkar complained to the National Human Rights Commission seeking a remedy for this discrimination. The National Human Rights Commission took immediate action, and within a week of the commission’s order, the bank authorities gave him the credit card.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee, national consultant of the Aspire to Innovate (a2i) project implemented by the cabinet division and ICT division, did not stop with the credit card. He took the initiative to ensure that people with disabilities will not be discriminated any more by any financial institutions. Along with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Bangladesh Bank also understood its importance and came forward to help this initiative.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee said, ‘Even though I have the ability to carry out transactions, the bank did not provide me a credit card. This is not only my problem, but it is a problem for all people with disabilities who require banking services. I will fight for the change, and I hope very soon we will be able to declare at least one bank as persons with disability friendly. From then on, other banks will also understand that making disability inclusiveness is not a difficult task; It is possible if they only prioritise it and take proper initiatives.

For over 18 years Vashkar has been working on developing assistive technology and policy formulation and innovated Multimedia Talking Book and Accessible Dictionary for all and received multiple national and international awards.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee told Prothom Alo, “Digital Bangladesh” has the technology that can be accessible for the persons with disability. But the services should be designed accordingly.

Bangladesh Bank with collaboration with a2i is working to ensure accessibility of banking services. Vashkar believes that digital technology has the potential to empower persons with disability in Bangladesh.  However, he emphasises the importance of making service disability inclusive and implementing persons with disability rights and protection act 2013 which has adopted in line with UNCRPD.

The National Human Rights Commission held a virtual meeting on 17 January 2022, to hear Vashkar’s complaint. Representatives from Bangladesh Bank and other related banks were also present. Ultimately, the commission ruled in Vashkar’s favour ordering the bank to issue him a credit card.

According to the order, persons with disabilities should have total access to debit card, credit card, or  mobile banking services. The governor of Bangladesh Bank instructed with collaboration with a2i has taken necessary steps to launch a disability inclusive integrated banking service by making a checklist of the obstacles faced by the people with disability in receiving banking services.

Appearing in the hearing, Vashkar recounted his experience using debit card in different countries. While he encountered no issues abroad, he faced harassment and discrimination when trying to access banking services in Bangladesh. For instance, when he attempted to obtain a credit card from another bank, he was required to provide a deposit of Tk 200,000 and the card was issued in his wife’s name. He is using this card as a 'supplementary' one.

A representative of the Bangladesh Bank who attended the hearing acknowledged the ongoing issue and indicated that circulars had been issued since 2009 to prevent people with disability from experiencing harassment in the banking sector. Despite these directives, the challenges persist.

According to a statement by Bangladesh Bank, Sonali Bank, Islami Bank, The City Bank and Standard Chartered Bank were selected to assess the accessibility of banking services for persons with disabilities through a2i. Following its evaluation of the accessibility of Islami Bank’s website and mobile application other banks has been asked to ensure disability friendly services. A2i has already completed the digital platform audit of Eastern Bank Limited and Standard Chartered Bank. The chief executives of the scheduled banks present have been informed about the progress made in this regard in the Bankers meeting on 2 March.

To address this ongoing issue, a comprehensive approach is needed that includes not only policies and directives but also awareness-raising campaigns and training for bank staff. By implementing a holistic approach, Bangladesh can create a truly inclusive banking system that serves all citizen equally.