Rule says banks can refuse to start accounts for people with ‘intellectual and psychosocial disabilities

When Rajiv Ranjan applied for a bank account, the bank denied him the facility point blank. Rajiv, a major, is the coordinator of the Disability Law Unit (DLU) at Vidya Sagar. They threw the rule book at him: The rule said banks could refuse to start accounts for people with ‘intellectual and psychosocial disabilities.’

“I cannot operate a bank account by myself and must depend on a guardian to have a bank account, I was told,” Rajiv says. “This despite the fact that Rajiv is active on the disability access and legal front. He has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech,” explains Smitha S.S, who is also with DLU. Rajiv’s is not a single case, the issue of accessing bank accounts by people with disabilities, physical, intellectual and psychosocial, looms large.

On International Human Rights Day, the disability rights’ lobby chose to bring this crucial problem to the forefront again.

The norms are that such persons can open only joint accounts, with a guardian, who will operate and maintain the account including signing of cheques, Rajiv explains. “The problem is with the Contract Act, which is discriminatory. The same rules apply to post offices too, and cases of post offices denying certain categories of disabled people have occurred too,” he adds.

Only recently, Vadivelan, a student of Vidya Sagar, who was over 18 years, applied for a postal ID. But officials refused to issue him the card, based on his condition, Smita explains. “They do not bother to check if the applicant is capable of operating the bank account by himself or herself. The risk of the account being mishandled is often the reason we are given. But we are ready to be responsible for the operation of our accounts, just as everyone else” she says.

With government welfare schemes moving into the cash transfer to beneficiaries mode, it has become all the more important to be able to own and operate a bank account by oneself, Meenakshi B of the DLU points out. Even the monthly maintenance allowance disbursed by the government is credited to the bank. The students of Vidya Sagar, many of whom have gone on to open their own businesses, still find it difficult to access bank loans, or register businesses in their own names. “Everything has to be done through a guardian, while they are equally capable of doing so,” explains Smitha.

It is also learnt that pursuant to a communication from the National Trust Act (for Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities) unit, the RBI did send out a circular advising banks to rely upon guardianship certificates issued under the Mental Health Act or the above Act for opening/operating bank accounts. Besides, it also makes recommendations on improving customer service in banks to various categories of disabled people.

T.M.N. Deepak, vice-president, Federation of Tamil Nadu Physically Handicapped Association, says this sometimes also extends to the physically disabled. “Recently, a physically disabled person was prevented from opening an account. Often ATMs and banks themselves are not accessible to wheelchair users, preventing them from using the facilities. How is this inclusion at all ”

Meenakshi adds, “Even I do not get an ATM card because I use crutches. The logic is that I cannot access the ATM, no discussion on making access possible.” But the disability rights lobby is not keeping quiet about this any longer. On Disability Day, earlier last week, solidarity booths were set up in a couple of branches in the State Bank of India in Chennai.

Further, the team is in the process studying existing regulations of the RBI, comparing them to international standards and examining what can be done to get reforms in, says Rahul Jacob Cherian of Inclusive Planet.

Perhaps when these reforms are set in place, Rajiv can actually issue a cheque by himself. Today, he has to depend on his partner who operates the joint account with him.