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Accessibility in Mobile Banking Apps

on Tuesday, 1 April 2014 in Banking Update

As a software category, mobile banking apps are an incredibly useful tool for smartphones and tablets. Their utility and widespread adoption empowers bank customers and credit users in their account management abilities. This success has generated pressure from disability advocates that failure to make these apps accessible to people with disabilities violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
This pressure continues to rise, as shown by a recent consent decree between two private plaintiffs, the National Federation of the Blind, the U.S. Department of Justice and H&R Block. The plaintiffs complained the H&R Block website,, was insufficiently accessible to people with visual impairments, and the resulting consent decree obligates H&R Block to improve accessibility not only for the website but also for their mobile applications.


The H&R Block consent decree joins another recent development from 2013. Bank of America entered a settlement agreement with Bay State Council of the Blind and two bank customers after they lodged a complaint against the bank claiming its website and mobile application were insufficiently accessible to persons with visual impairments. With disability advocates scoring victories like these, complaints and resolutions requiring accessibility improvements may gain additional steam.


Courts have already held that websites operated by places of public accommodation (“PPA”) are subject to the ADA under limited circumstances. In National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., a California federal court held that a website operated by a PPA with a “brick-and-mortar” operation open to the public is subject to the ADA. This same court in Young v. Facebook, Inc. subsequently clarified that websites are subject to the ADA if a plaintiff is able to demonstrate a nexus between: (1) the alleged discrimination presented on the website; and (2) the defendant’s brick-and-mortar PPA. While these decisions addressed websites, the H&R block consent decree and Bank of America settlement prove it will not be much of a leap for courts to hold mobile applications as subject to the ADA.
The consent decree and settlement reveal that banking and credit institutions are not without guidance for how to develop and maintain accessible mobile apps. The World Wide Web Consortium (“W3C”) maintains a web accessibility initiative (“WAI”) and has issued several recommendations relevant to mobile apps. Specifically, the W3C’s recommendations most pertinent to mobile banking apps are: (a) the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0; (b) the Mobile Web Application Best Practices; and (c) the Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0. Referencing these recommendations, the W3C identified overlaps in issues for mobile device use and web accessibility by people with disabilities.


Banks and financial institutions wanting to address accessibility concerns should pay particular attention to certain portions of the guidance. For instance, section 3.3.4 of the WCAG 2.0 suggests users enabled to initiate financial transactions should be provided error prevention measures such as mechanisms to reverse certain submissions, as well as opportunities to check for data input errors before submission. In the Mobile Web Application Best Practices, section 3.5.9 addresses network-initiated content delivery, otherwise known as “push” notifications, that can lower user requirements to manually manipulate their devices for news and updates. From the Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0, section 5.2.4 outlines the need for mobile applications to provide consistent navigation mechanisms that are cognizant of the input devices available to a mobile user.


There are already technologies used by some mobile banking apps that successfully boost accessibility. Voice-activated banking commands for bill payments, account transfers and the like is one solution that can assist the visually impaired or those with limited movement. Also helpful for those with visual impairments are apps that leverage device-integrated cameras. Using those cameras, some mobile banking apps allow users to deposit checks or schedule payments simply by taking a photo of a check ready for deposit or a bill that is due. People with hearing loss or deafness may find apps helpful that allow a customer to “flip a switch” on the user interface to deactivate a potentially lost or stolen card. This solution can save hearing impaired customers the time of using a TDD to call a bank or credit card representative. Finally, geo-location services that deliver offers and rewards based on a user’s location can assist persons with learning disabilities or cognitive limitations.  
Making mobile banking apps accessible to people with disabilities will be an ongoing process because technologies change. But there are obvious benefits. Improving accessibility will likely increase an app’s functionality regardless of whether a user has a disability, thereby increasing the odds of customer satisfaction. Further, taking proactive steps to address accessibility will better position a bank or credit institution to prevent public criticism and litigious claims.  


Y. Kamaal Patterson

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