The scandal of hardship facing young deaf/blind people

Iona Bain

I don’t attend too many events in the financial industry; as someone who is self-employed and wearing lots of hats, I’ve got to be careful with my time. And many events are designed to promote nakedly commercial interests – not exactly fertile hunting ground for those wanting to find real stories about young people and their financial problems.

But I’m very glad I made an exception on Monday to attend the launch of Money Mechanics, a new education scheme set up by MyBnk.

MyBnk (in case you’re not familiar with it) is a fantastic charity that’s only about a decade old but now at the forefront of financial education in the UK. It goes into schools and youth organisations to provide financial education and enterprise workshops, teaching young people an array of essential financial skills that will help them navigate our complex consumer economy.

MyBnk recently launched a groundbreaking programme in primary schools (the first really concerted effort to teach 7 – 11 year olds about money). Around £1m has been pledged by City firms, brought together by the Tax Incentivised Savings Association, to make the project happen. This is a crucial step forward in the mission to convince policymakers and society at large that money lessons should not be optional, and that they really have to start at a young age when lifelong attitudes and behaviours are already being formed.

Now, MyBnk is looking at a group of young people who are all too easily neglected by both educators and the financial industry: young people with sensory impairment.

This week, it unveiled Money Mechanics, an imaginative project which aims to teach young people who are either deaf or blind how to manage their own money.

It sounds so simple, you might think “why on earth haven’t we had this before now?” But the shocking truth is that few deaf or blind children ever get the dedicated help they need to live independently and make a success of it.

A lot of what I found out on Monday was incredibly eye-opening. I had no idea about the everyday difficulties faced by young people with sensory impairment trying to do even the most simple tasks. Most of us take for granted the fact that we can check our bank balance, communicate with staff in shops, talk to a bank manager, withdraw money from an ATM and read bills (even if we choose not to!)

This is me taking a challenge after the event – could I enter a PIN number at an ATM if I didn’t have my vision? I found it much trickier than I thought it would be, and I think I only got the four digit number right because I have touch-typing skills from my years spent as a journalist.

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Some of the stories shared by both deaf and blind people on Monday were almost unbelievable. Kevin Satizabal, a young ambassador for the Royal Society of Blind Children, told us how a talking ATM machine can be the difference between withdrawing his money securely and privately and having to rely on taxi drivers and members of the public to get his cash out, all the while trusting that they won’t steal from him.

A talking ATM machine basically allows you to plug your earphones into machine and activate aural instructions for taking your money out. A number of banks and building societies now have talking ATMS within most of their branches and HSBC recently rolled out 1,500 of these machines across the country.

But Kevin also pointed out that young deaf/blind people can only ever focus on the fundamentals – sticking with a bank that they know can provide internet banking that’s suitable for their needs rather than scouring the market for the best savings account on the market that may not be very accessible to them.

Another big issue for young deaf/blind people is independence. Kevin said that parents can be extremely protective of children with sensory impairment, and that children sometimes have to fight their families to gain control of their disability living allowance once they turn 18 (not because the families want to hold onto the money, but because they’re worried about whether their children can manage it on their own).

Their fears aren’t without justification, says Kevin. When he first went to university, he had £200 to spend across the whole month – but it only lasted a week. It taught him a big lesson, but ultimately made him realise that failing to understand spending and the value of money for yourself can be “really detrimental” in the long term. After all, as he pointed out, why would you worry about saving for a home if you don’t really believe your money is your own?

Paul Newbery, head of the hearing impaired unit at St Clere’s School, also provided some stark insights. More than half of deaf pupils fail to achieve five GCSEs and face enough problems in getting a full education as it is (deaf/blind children typically don’t take their GSCES or go to university until ten years after their non-impaired peers). Parents often tell him that they don’t think their children will have good future, or that they will never be able to live independently or go to events on their own.

Money Mechanics will hopefully do its bit to help change that. It will teach children about budgeting (which Kevin would have appreciated before university!) as well as how to understand new developments in money like contactless cards (which Paul reckons can be particularly dangerous). Above all, young people with sensory impairment will be encouraged by experts to understand this subject for themselves so they are NOT held back.

The key will be to teach this subject in a language understood by both deaf and blind children. Paul explained that concepts such as a “bank”, an “Isa” or “saving” have to be boiled down to the absolute basics for deaf children to understand, and the materials and resources need to be ULTRA visual (which wouldn’t occur to someone like me in the first instance, but actually makes total sense.)

The financial sector could also be doing far more. It’s great to see that banks have rolled out talking ATMs much more widely, but we need to make sure that young deaf and blind people are not barred from accessing the best (or even just the fairest) deals for them due to a lack of tailored facilities, particularly online. As the former paralympian Mike Brace CBE pointed out, investment in such services should not be a “one-off, benevolent charitable initiative”. This is about bringing in a customer base worth £20 – 30bn to the banking sector and “very good” customers in the process. So it’s in everyone’s financial interest to do this.

Things are better than they used to be. Mike couldn’t even understand what was in his bank account before braille statements and online banking came along. But that isn’t saying much and the abysmal statistics speak for themselves. According to research carried out by MyBnk, 74 per cent of young deaf and blind people end up being financially dependent on family, 70 per cent live on the poverty line and can expect to have lower incomes and higher expenses than the rest of the population.

So let’s hope this new scheme is a watershed and shows that young people do not have to be held back due to financial anxiety, regardless of whether they have an impairment or not. If you have a special interest in this subject, I would love to hear from you – either leave a comment or tweet me @ionayoungmoney.

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