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Are Hong Kong’s banks doing enough to help their disabled or elderly customers?

SCMP visited about 100 bank branches and ATM locations across Hong Kong, to gauge the efforts being made to make life easier for their most challenged customers – our findings were mixed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 11:00am

Given the extreme geography of the city, one step up may seem like the least difficult task of the day for many Hong Kong residents.

But, for the disabled, it can be an insurmountable barrier that keeps them from accessing the most basic of services.

The step – you’ll find it in the vast majority of shops and restaurants in the city – keeps water from heavy rains, such as those brought by Typhoon Mangkhut last week, from invading businesses and homes as it flows downhill.

That is the one of the many challenges for Hong Kong’s banks as they seek to catch up to their counterparts in other parts of the world and rework their branches and automated teller machine locations to make them more accessible for older and disabled residents in a city where extra space is often a luxury.

The city’s lenders have made progress – and are ahead of other Hong Kong businesses – but have a way to go before they are fully accessible, based on an informal survey of more than 100 locations carried out by South China Morning Post.

Nearly 90 per cent of the branches or ATM locations visited in Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Taikoo Shing required a step up to access a service counter or a banking machine.

More than half had no lifts or ramps, even temporary ones, to help wheelchair users access services.

Joseph Kwan, a Hong Kong architect who focuses on accessibility issues and works with the Hong Kong Federation for Handicapped Youth, said that step dates back to colonial-era rules that required a six-inch, barrier to prevent flooding and rot when stores and residencies had timber floors.

The step “is an archaic solution”, Kwan said. “There are many, many other solutions that are available. You go to other accessible places, like Vancouver or Japan. They can do it well. I say, if they can do it, why can’t we?”

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Kwan said Hong Kong’s rules can make it difficult for businesses with limited space to build a ramp: the allowed slope for a one-foot rise would require a ramp 12-feet long.

There are many, many other solutions [to help handicapped or elderly customers] that are available. You go to other accessible places, like Vancouver or Japan. They can do it well. I say, if they can do it, why we?
Joseph Kwan, a Hong Kong architect who focuses on accessibility issues

The Hong Kong Association of Banks put new guidelines in place in March to encourage its members to adopt best practices for “barrier free” access to banking services for the physically disabled, the visually impaired and the hearing-impaired, a step forward from practical guidance it provided in the past.

Many businesses in Hong Kong, however, often lack accommodation for the disabled that have become standard in other countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where local laws have required broader compliance or made it easier to remake facilities, advocates say.

Kwan noted that Norway has taken it a step further and committed to a national policy of universal design and accessibility by 2025.

For their part, the city's largest lenders are engaged in a broader effort to re-imagine their physical locations – both digital portals and non-banking locations – to make banking easier for their disabled and elderly customers.

The guidelines include installing permanent ramps or having call buttons and temporary ramps available to help the physically disabled access branches. They also encourage banks, where feasible, to install ATMs with tactile instructions and voice navigation for visually impaired users.

For example, elderly customers, beginning in March this year, are able to make withdrawals from their bank accounts at major convenience stores in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong Association of Banks spokesperson said.

“The guideline seeks to consolidate prevailing best practices within the banking industry in helping customers who have special needs access various financial delivery channels owing to their physical mobility disability, visual disability and/or hearing disability,” the spokesperson added.

The new recommendations came a decade after the city’s Buildings Department put in regulations as part of its updated design manual to allow for greater barrier-free access.

The guideline seeks to consolidate prevailing best practices within the banking industry in helping customers who have special needs access various financial delivery channels owing to their physical mobility disability, visual disability and/or hearing disability
Hong Kong Association of Banks spokesperson

Those rules, while helpful, exempted older buildings if they were not undergoing extensive alterations. Many shops and restaurants that are not part of a larger shopping complex have also been forced to update under the building rules.

The demands on space in Hong Kong also mean that design rules are sometimes implemented literally, so buildings may widen a hallway just enough for a wheelchair to pass, but not turn around, advocates say.

Feng shui, the ancient practice that uses the positioning of objects and design to bring better harmony to living and working spaces, can also play a role in a building’s exterior, particularly in Hong Kong, said Thierry Chow, a feng shui expert based in Wan Chai.

For the city’s biggest banks, improving accessibility makes business sense.

In August, HSBC showcased changes it has made at its Tseun Wan branch to better serve disabled customers, ranging from customer service representatives trained in sign language to branch counters that have been lowered to make it easier for disabled customers.

HSBC plans to introduce 250 ATMs equipped with voice navigation services, which allow a visually impaired person to use headphones to navigate ATM menus by voice, across Hong Kong by the end of the year. It is also lowering the height of some ATMs and counters within branches to make them more accessible to wheelchair-bound consumers. The bank has more than 800 ATMs in Hong Kong.

“The industry is making itself far more accessible. Obviously, it is not just the physical network,” said Greg Hingston, HSBC’s head of retail banking and wealth management in Hong Kong. “We are rapidly entering the digital age, so improving accessibility in digital has to be considered too.”

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Hingston said Hong Kong’s population is ageing, so the bank needs to make sure it is serving those customers “in a better ongoing way ”.

The Bank of China introduced the first voice navigation ATM in Hong Kong five years ago and has protruding symbols on all of its machines to help the blind, such as dollar signs to indicate where money comes out of a machine.

The industry is making itself far more accessible. Obviously, it is not just the physical network. We are rapidly entering the digital age, so improving accessibility in digital has to be considered too
Greg Hingston, HSBC’s head of retail banking and wealth management in Hong Kong

The bank said it has more than 160 voice navigation ATMs at 127 of its branches and automated banking centres in Hong Kong and plans to have more than 200 of the machines in place by the end of next year.

It also has temporary ramps available at all of its locations where there are stairs at the entrance and bells that can be used to summon customer service staff to help disabled customers who need help, the bank said.

Citibank has installed wheelchair ramps at many of its locations around the city and has a handful of voice navigation ATMs available at locations in Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tseun Wan, which allow customers to navigate in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Those visits by South China Morning Post to dozens of branches and ATM locations for more than 20 different banks in Hong Kong, showed the industry, while making progress, still has some distance to travel before it reaches its goal.

At one location of China Construction Bank (Asia), a branch manager, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said it had installed a lowered ATM for wheelchair users and sound for the blind to better serve the disabled. The manager said the bank had not previously considered the step as an issue for wheelchair users.

“China Construction Bank (Asia) aims to address accessibility needs of users with disability and has started to introduce portable wheelchair ramps at some branches,” the company said in a statement.

“Portable wheelchair ramps will also be arranged in all CCB (Asia) branches gradually in future. In addition, professional guard stationed at entrances to all CBB branches will provide timely help to customers with disabilities, in addition to security enhancement.”

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At the Wing Lung Building in Central, users have to climb seven steps to reach the Wing Lung Bank branch or access its external ATM.

When approached by South China Morning Post, branch representatives directed inquires to the building’s security staff, who said there was no ramp because it was an “old building”.

Wing Lung Bank did not respond to a request for comment.

That is not to say that banks in Hong Kong, while facing challenges ranging from geography to space, are not doing their best to accommodate their disabled patrons.

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The Bank of China, for example, has built a phone booth-sized lift at its Prince Edward Road West location in Kowloon that carries wheelchair users and other physically impaired customers up a single step.

Several banks also have trained staff in sign language, equipped their counters with flashing signs for queuing. They openly welcome guide dogs to their branches and provide bank statements and other materials in Braille to blind patrons.

Banking services can also be difficult for the blind.

We cannot use other functions, such as checking the account balance or changing the pin
Jason Ho Ka-leung, financial secretary for the Hong Kong Blind Union

The vast majority of ATMs in the city have tactile symbols to help guide the blind where to place their card or take money. The challenge is navigating the many screens that users encounter once they have entered their PIN.

Of 90 locations visited that had ATMs, only 18 had machines equipped with audio plugs for the blind to be guided by voice.

Before the introduction of voice navigation, Jason Ho Ka-leung, financial secretary for the Hong Kong Blind Union, said that the visually impaired had to remember the placement of items on the ATM screen, which usually limited the visually impaired to simply withdrawing money.

“We cannot use other functions, such as checking the account balance or changing the pin,” he said.

Ho Ka-leung said that HSBC asked for input from the Blind Union before introducing its voice navigation machines. The biggest request: allow users to press a button to skip the various disclaimers posted by the bank if it is not the first time they are using an ATM, he said.

“In the long run, I am hoping for all ATM locations to have the voice navigation functions,” he said. “This is my dream and I believe that will come true one day.”

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