When I was growing up, finances were tight. As one of six children, I was very aware of my parents’ obligations and wanted — and was expected — to help. One way I did so was to assist my mom with the monthly bills. I would sit at the table and add things up, keeping track of the numbers while she wrote the checks. Since I liked math, it was a fun way to contribute.
Looking back, these experiences had benefits far beyond what I realized at the time. They were my first lessons in financial literacy — lessons that many of us with disabilities do not receive, with significant repercussions. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act being signed into law 24 years ago, those of us with disabilities remain significantly less financially stable than those without.
This inequity is the motivation behind many of the policy initiatives we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy implement in collaboration with our LEAD Center (the National Center on Leadership for the Employment and Economic Advancement of People with Disabilities) — a consortium of disability, workforce and economic empowerment organizations led by the National Disability Institute.
The National Disability Institute recently issued a report on the Financial Capability of Adults with Disabilities examining data from respondents to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation’s 2012 National Financial Capability Study who self-identified as “permanently sick, disabled or unable to work.” It sheds light on how these respondents make ends meet, plan ahead and manage money, as well as their level of financial literacy. And in nearly every category, they fall far behind.
Particularly disturbing is that many are “unbanked” or “underbanked” — meaning they don’t have access to mainstream financial services. As a result, they are also more likely to rely on nonconventional services; for example, payday loans. And research tells us that even those of us with disabilities who do have access to services tend to be vulnerable to predatory practices. That is why last year ODEP signed an agreement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to increase access to services, asset-building strategies and consumer protection information for those of us with disabilities.
Recently, my colleague Daniel Dodd-Rodriguez (assistant director for CFPB’s Office of Financial Empowerment) disseminated a joint memorandum to educate the field about our mutual commitment to improving the financial capability of Americans with disabilities. The memorandum contains information about available federal resources and assistance for consumers on an array of topics related to financial capability, and also describes our collaborative activities to improve worker access to resources, services and support to help improve our financial security and economic advancement.
Given numerous investments from government and the private sector in recent years, I have witnessed significant improvements in banking accessibility. That voice you hear at the ATM? That’s for people who are blind, like me. But as operations become increasingly virtual, banks must also ensure their websites and apps are accessible. Not long ago, I paid my credit card bill via phone each month but was charged an additional fee for doing so. Yet, it was the most accessible method available to me. That simply was not fair.
These issues are all part of a larger, systemic problem, the root of which is expectation — or actually lack thereof. Many of us with disabilities, especially those born with them, are simply not expected to work and have money to manage. Sitting around the table doing those sums for my mom, I was the exception, not the norm. Today, as assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, I am committed to reversing that equation.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.