> Posted by Siddhartha Chowdri, Program Manager, Disability Inclusion, India, CFI

How does the microfinance community view persons with disabilities (PWD)? This economically disenfranchised population makes up less than one percent of microfinance clients around the world, leaving the vast majority of PWD excluded. Many PWD would benefit from financial services. Yet even the most intense Google, Bing, or Yahoo search will yield almost no in-depth research into how persons with disabilities are perceived among the leaders and staff of microfinance institutions (MFIs). For my focus country of India, no research at all is related to this topic. We hope that a new CFI paper authored by Vipin Gupta of Credit Suisse, Making Microfinance Accessible to Persons with Disabilities: Awareness and Attitudes Among Indian Microfinance Institutions, will be the starting point for more research and action in this area.

Annapurna Staff Members and v-shesh Researcher with Focus Group Discussion Participants, Odisha

Over the last two years CFI has been working with three leading Indian MFIs – Equitas, ESAF, and Annapurna – to refine and develop tools that institutions across the world can use to make themselves more accessible to PWD. CFI also partnered with v-shesh, an India-based social enterprise with expertise in disability inclusion. At the start of this work, CFI and v-shesh decided to conduct research on the existing environments at these MFIs. The purpose of this research was two-fold:

  1. Learn which areas related to disability inclusion should be emphasized during the planned trainings and accessibility audits.
  2. Establish a baseline understanding of the existing views of disability inclusion at the MFIs for subsequent monitoring of changes.

Last November, the v-shesh team surveyed hundreds of MFI staff at all levels as well as MFI clients – both with disabilities and without. They also conducted intensive focus group discussions to gather additional qualitative information to prepare for the trainings.

The research was not originally intended to be published; however, we soon realized that we had a goldmine of information and anecdotes about the importance of financial inclusion for persons with disabilities. The research data and interview transcripts were processed and written into the CFI report by Vipin Gupta, a Business Analyst at Credit Suisse in Singapore, through the Credit Suisse Virtual Volunteer program.

The research demonstrated that MFI staff have a good understanding of visible disabilities as well as a good track record of interacting with persons with disabilities, though further staff sensitization is needed, including awareness of non-visible disabilities, and the overprotection of PWDs. Regarding overprotection, some MFI staff believe that PWD should receive charitable donations rather than MFI loans. The study also revealed a lack of awareness among MFI staff about the non-discrimination policies of their organization.

MFI staff, non-PWD clients, and the PWD clients – all of whom were members of self-help groups (SHGs) – displayed a great willingness and confidence to include PWD as potential clients. Action items anticipated for the institutions to become disability inclusive included service accessibility (with adaptations for different types of disabilities) and staff training. The study also identified a need for sensitization of SHG members. The study also recommends engagement and partnership with disabled persons’ organizations as a way to connect efficiently with PWD.

To help all of us understand the perceptions in the field a bit better, here are some of the responses to questions given by MFI field staff and clients.

I understand the difficulty they (persons with disabilities) face on a day-to-day basis in accessing almost everything. We have to learn to treat them as one amongst us, give them respect, make them believe in themselves, and then see all that they can achieve.

Equitas branch staff member, Tamil Nadu

My friend’s brother has a disability. Due to his disability and constraint of funds, he could not pursue his education and now finds it difficult to pursue his dreams.

 – ESAF branch staff member, Maharashtra

PWD face many challenges in doing business effectively. MFIs can help them by designing special products with relaxed loan terms, lenient screening criteria, and some relaxations if people are unable to pay as per schedule.

– Non-PWD client, Annapurna Finance, Odisha

PWD should be given loans if they are financially active. But some relaxations or changes may be required to enable them to use this loan effectively. For example, loan officers may have to visit people with orthopedic disabilities and visual impairments in the case that they are unable to travel, or loans can be given to the parents of people with mental disabilities. We can give them training to improve and diversify their businesses. We can make the loan term less strict, we can provide them with counseling/mentoring support.

– Equitas branch staff member, Tamil Nadu

You may not agree with what these people are saying, but as we begin to design financial services that are more inclusive for PWDs, we cannot deny that their ideas are worth discussing.

To read the report, Making Microfinance Accessible to Persons with Disabilities: Awareness and Attitudes Among Indian Microfinance Institutions, click here.

Image credit: v-shesh

Have you read?

A How-To Guide to Realizing Disability Inclusion at MFIs is Now Available

Barriers Persist in Financial Inclusion for PWDs

Combatting Exclusion for Persons with Disabilities in India and Mexico