March 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 3

Access Issues

It's in the Bank: A Snapshot of Accessible Online Financial Services

If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it's that money is always a source of controversy. In my particular case, it seems I never have enough of it in my wallet! Managing your money online should not be a source of frustration, and with some recent improvements made by financial websites, it's getting easier. In this article, I am going to give you a peek into some of my online financial experiences, and point out what worked well and what needs improvement. Now, if I could just remember where I buried my pot of gold in the backyard. Has anyone seen my tactile treasure map?

A Walk Around the Block

Since it's nearly time to pay the taxman, I was really excited when I found a free copy of H&R Block's At Home software in my mailbox. Unfortunately, that's where the excitement ended. When I inserted the disc into my laptop, a pleasant voice introduced me to the program, but the screen was inaccessible. The voice asked me to click on the green button, but wouldn't you know the button was not keyboard accessible. I found some sighted assistance to help me get past the first couple of screens but, alas, the entire program wasn't accessible. My screen reader was unable to detect anything other than unlabeled graphics. A phone call to H&R Block's customer service ended in frustration when the representative put me on hold only to return to tell me that indeed the software was not tested for accessibility. Guess I'll have to break out the abacus and figure out how I'm going to calculate my taxes.

How are you planning to file your taxes this year? Are you using online programs, desktop applications, or putting everything in a shoebox and dropping it off at your accountant's office? Send us your feedback.

Check Out My Checking Account

It's funny, I almost never find myself writing a check, yet I still have a checking account. Today's checking accounts allow customers to make paperless payments to just about anybody. In addition to that convenience, advances in online banking mean you can perform a variety of additional banking tasks—like transferring money, making payments, making investments, and researching financial information—without ever leaving your computer.

Large vs. Small

While I recognize the validity of the concern that the proliferation of large national banks in small town America is not good for small community banks and credit unions, many of the large banks do maintain accessible websites and talking ATMs, while smaller banks often don't have the resources to do so. If you would like to support a smaller bank or credit union, see if they offer checking accounts with debit cards that do not carry fees when used at other institutions' ATMs. That way, you can take advantage of the convenience and accessibility of the larger banks' ATMs while helping your community banker. Of course there are other things to take into consideration when choosing a physical bank branch and you should make the choice that best works with your priorities and access concerns.

Online Banking with Citibank

Around the year 2000, when mainstream America was getting used to having everything on the Internet, I started banking online with Citibank. It was a simple process to sign up and connect all of my accounts to one username and password, and I was impressed that I could see my checking account, savings account, retirement account, and credit card information all at the same time. Once, I was even moved to tears when I reflected on my latest online banking session—not because of the technological advancements I'd just enjoyed, but rather because of the lack of money in my accounts and the high balance of my credit card!

Citibank has always maintained two websites for as long as I can remember. One is designed for people using screen readers and the other one is their main website. At first, there was a huge difference in the user experience between the two and I preferred to use the simpler site with a screen reader. At that time, the main site was poorly marked up for screen readers and it was very difficult to navigate. While the screen reader site was easier to use, it lacked some features. I am happy to report that Citibank has made considerable improvements to both sites.

The current screen reader site is robust and makes good use of markup. There are headings, well-labeled edit fields, and the data tables work well with my screen reader's table reading commands. Additionally, form controls such as combo boxes and buttons are well labeled and function with screen readers. It's possible to set up online bill payments, make recurring payments, and transfer funds between linked accounts on the screen reader site, and there is also a secure message center that allows customers to communicate with customer service without worrying about sending confidential information via e-mail. If you are so inclined, you can download statement information that can be uploaded into financial record keeping software. The biggest drawback of the screen reader site is that I'm not able to access my investment account beyond seeing its balance. There is a note on the page with a toll-free telephone number for investment customer service. To use the screen reader version, move the focus of your screen reader to the very top of the page and arrow down. It should be one of the first links announced or you can pull up a list of links on the page and move to the top of the list.

The main Citibank website has really made quite a few advances in terms of accessibility to people using screen readers. Most of the pages have good heading structure, properly labeled graphics, texts, and edit fields, and the form controls work well. The majority of tables allow screen reader table reading commands. Many of the PDF documents in the investment section of the website were easily read with my screen reader. From time to time I did run into some problems, especially in the investing section of the website. For example, when looking at a table displaying mutual fund performance, the table reading commands did not announce the various table column headings properly. I had to navigate to the top of the table to read the column headings and keep my fingers crossed that I would be able to memorize the order.

While I do think that Citibank could benefit from having more attention focused on accessibility and usability for people using assistive technology, I would certainly encourage current Citibank account holders to try out the two websites and make their own decisions. While I may have had frustrating moments over the years, I am generally satisfied with the performance of the site.

Do you have any experience with Citibank's websites? What about a different bank or credit union's website? Send us your thoughts on your bank website's accessibility.

Saving My Money With Some Fun: ING Direct

While it's true that most banks offer various types of accounts for their customers, I originally opened a savings account with ING Direct back in 2005 because they were offering amazingly high interest rates on their savings accounts. At that time, the rates were nearly 5 percent, more than twice as high as the interest rates being offered by other financial institutions. Moreover, ING Direct had such quirky radio commercials; I just had to see what it was all about. I decided to open up an account and see what else was being offered besides great interest rates. If you haven't checked the business section of your local newspaper lately, let me tell you that interest rates will no longer make your heart go pitter-pat. Even so, I have been happy with my ING Direct savings account for a number of reasons. They have an automatic savings plan that allows me to have a fixed amount of money transferred from my external checking account to my ING Direct savings account on a regular schedule. This provides me with some discipline to save money consistently instead of seeing what I have left at the end of the month for savings.

The bank has its origins in Internet banking and that is clearly apparent with the emphasis it places on its website. The first thing that you'll notice about the site is that they take security very seriously. They have not abandoned accessibility, but you'll need to take some steps that may be new to you. While these extra measures might seem cumbersome at first, they definitely help me feel confident about banking with ING Direct.

When logging into the site, the website gives you the option of replacing displayed numbers with asterisks. This is a great security measure to ensure that somebody can't write down your account number if they are standing over your shoulder viewing your monitor. If you activate this feature, you should note that your screen reader will say "star, star, star" instead of the digits of your customer number.

For most websites, after entering your username you are generally asked for your password, right? Instead of merely typing your password, the site will ask you to answer some of the security questions that you created when you opened up your account. You can register your own personal computer so that the site will recognize you and your computer the next time you log in and skip the questions.

During the account creation process you will select a security image so that during the login process you can confirm that you're on the real ING site. My screen reader reads aloud my security phrase so I know I haven't somehow ended up on a fraudulent version of the site.

This next part might give you some trouble, but just hold on tight, because it's not that bad. An onscreen numerical keyboard will appear and you'll be asked to enter your personal identification number (PIN). If you're using a screen reader, you will discover that you can't use your keyboard. Instead, there is a link to take you to a keyboard- enabled PIN entry screen. Your screen reader may focus to the edit field for the PIN entry, but at this point do not enter your numerical PIN because it will not work. Instead of trying to enter your PIN, exit the edit field and navigate back to the level one heading. Use the down arrow to move to the keypad graphics. Each number on the numerical keypad is assigned an alphabetical equivalent each time you sign in. You'll need to either memorize the four letters that correspond to your PIN or write them down for that particular log-in session. Then, navigate back to the edit field, fill in the alphabetical characters that correspond to your numeric PIN and click the "Continue" link. The upside to all of these security measures is that there are no CAPTCHAs to deal with.

Once you log in, I think you'll be very pleased with the ease and simplicity of the site. The webpages have good heading structure, labeled graphics and links, and properly marked-up forms. Transferring money between linked accounts, including external checking accounts at other banks, is a breeze and, best of all, is absolutely free. This could be an easy method for helping you send money to your children in college. (Or an easy way for them to send you money once they graduate!) ING Direct's eStatements are accessible PDF documents that are easy to read and appear to have proper table structure. ING Direct also offers checking, mortgage, credit card, and individual retirement accounts, though the accessibility of these accounts has not been verified for this article. If you use an accessible finance application, you can download the data from the website and upload it into your financial software.

The site has a few minor problems but I don't think that they will prevent you from performing your banking tasks if you are using a screen reader. The site has some flash content that does not appear to be accessible, but thankfully there aren't any unlabeled flash buttons to contend with. There are a couple of video demonstrations that will give screen reader users some problems. I clicked on one and could not figure out how to turn off the music. It appeared as if my screen reader was able to detect text on the screen, but with the music blaring, I could not understand the text. This is something that should clearly be looked at by the ING Direct technology team.

Keep in mind that ING Direct does not operate branches like a traditional banking institution. Instead, they have ING Direct cafes in big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where you can grab a cup of hot coffee and discuss finances with a friendly staff member. This means that you will have to mail in your deposits, use direct deposit, or transfer money from an externally linked account.

Do you have an account with ING Direct? Tell us about your experience.

Don't Leave Home Without It

I have been disappointed by the accessibility of the American Express website year after year, but the last time I logged in I was pleasantly surprised. My first clue that things had changed was the amount of descriptive text accompanying the edit fields for username and password on the homepage. After logging in, I found a summary of my accounts at the level one heading and after arrowing down a bit, I found links for a variety of options, including statement, balance, recent payments and credits, and payment due. It was very easy to locate important information quickly.

One important note for customers using screen reading technology: there are many controls and elements deployed on the American Express website that you'll need to get accustomed to. On various pages throughout the site my screen reader announced "clickable" even though there was no accompanying link announcement. You can click on these elements to activate them and they will also appear in your list of links on the page. You will not find the traditional combo boxes for selecting a time period (e.g., when you want to review your online statements). However, you are able to use the keyboard to select the correct time period from a provided list. Additionally, the website uses new technology that allows the content of the screen to be updated without having to reload the entire webpage in your browser. This may cause you to think that the website is not working if you click on something and don't hear anything such as a click or your screen reader announce the percentage of the screen that is loaded. I used the arrow keys to move up and down to find the additional information. You will want to become familiar with your screen reader's various keyboard commands for easier site navigation.

I find myself using a credit card for most of my everyday purchases. In doing so, I also like to keep an eye on my activity and statements to make sure that the charges are accurate and I haven't been a victim of any credit card fraud. The data tables on the American Express website allow me to quickly move vertically and horizontally to see what activity has been posted to my account. By clicking on a line number, you can expand or collapse additional information such as the address and phone number of the merchant that has posted to the account, and you can also dispute a charge right there from the statement.

Somebody at American Express is obviously spending some time revising their site with some concern for accessibility. It's far from perfect, but it's definitely getting better. As I clicked around other sections of the website, I realized that the changes are only on a limited number of pages. There are still many, many pages without headings for keyboard navigation or pages that use tables for layout rather than presenting data. Links are still announced as "click here," and there are still handfuls of poorly labeled graphics. American Express certainly needs to continue to make improvements in order to give customers using screen readers an equal web browsing experience when managing their credit cards.

Do you have an American Express account? Tell us about your experience.

Show Me the Money

Managing your financial affairs should not be a daunting task. You should feel really comfortable using your assistive technology to navigate your financial institution's website. It's really disappointing that the H & R Block At Home product is not accessible to screen reader customers. Perhaps it will be next year. In my opinion, banks are relying more and more heavily on online environments to provide services and it is important for our community to constantly remind them about the importance of accessibility.

How about you? Have you contacted your bank to give them feedback about the accessibility of their website? How about letting them know that you appreciate the fact that they are concerned about their customers with disabilities? Remember, you have the power to switch banks if your current one is not accessible.

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