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NEW YORK – The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions is launching a new effort to help its member credit unions reach out to people with disabilities in their fields-of-membership and to help all credit unions better understand and serve what it says is a significantly underserved population. The economic indices for this population are really quite dreadful, explained Clifford Rosenthal, executive director of the Federation who became aware of the disparity in financial services for the disabled after being asked to attend meetings on how to improve access to financial services for people with disabilities. The Federation is partnering with the National Disability Institute, a subsidiary of the NCB Development Corporation, in the effort. Plans for the effort include a financial literacy campaign, technical support for CDCUs in linking with local organizations serving people with disabilities, development of training materials, and development of customized loan products. Michael Morris, director of NDI, said that there were a number of different reasons people with disabilities have had to struggle for financial services and explained that, in his view, the effort to get attention from financial institutions has closely mirrored the effort to get attention generally. “Sometimes there has been prejudice,” Morris said, “but even more there has been a sense that people with disabilities have mostly been off everyone’s radar, including financial institutions. You know the old saying, `out of sight, out of mind,’ ” he noted. A lot of the country’s attitude and awareness of people with disabilities began to change, Morris explained, after the U.S. government put the Americans With Disabilities Act into place. This act brought people with disabilities into many people’s awareness, he said, and has started the work of making the changes in both the government and private sector that the law envisioned. In the area of financial services, a big part of the early effort will involve reaching out and educating people with disabilities about the opportunities financial institutions, particularly credit unions, offer. Morris explained that many people with disabilities haven’t had financial products and services as a high priority, especially in light of the day-to-day struggle many have faced for the basic things they need in life. Only now, as more of those daily pressures have been addressed, have people with disabilities found themselves in a position to focus on more of their pressing financial needs (see sidebar). For credit unions, some of the challenge of helping people with get financial services will be in understanding the net effect of different public and private programs that are in place to help them meet their financial needs, Rosenthal said. “ There is a whole world of different government financial programs that are available to people with disabilities that they might need a financial institution to help them navigate,” Rosenthal explained. Community development credit unions, with their experience working with economically struggling populations, should be well suited to helping people with disabilities make their way into the financial mainstream, he added. One Credit Union’s Experience While the Federation’s effort is the first push by a significant group of credit unions toward working with people with disabilities, at least one credit union has had an impact reaching out to people with disabilities. Digital Federal Credit Union, a $1.9 billion institution based in Marlborough, Mass., has added 9,000 members in the year since it added members of the American Association of People with Disabilities to its field of membership. Founded in 1995 and based in Washington, D.C., the 30,000 member AAPD is the largest association for disabled people that is not disability specific. Tim Garner, vice president for marketing for the credit union, said that the credit union’s loans to people with disabilities for vehicles that have to be specially modified have been the most popular with the new members, but that another loan product, called the Access Loan, has also been gaining ground. The modified vehicle loans cover any vehicle that has to be modified, for example with a wheelchair lift or with special driving implements, Garner said, and the Access Loans cover any sort of change to a house or really anything that will help the disabled person live life more easily. Physical Disabilities Need Not Be Financial Disabilities John Kemp, a noted disability advocate and attorney in Washington D.C., who himself lives with significant disabilities addressed the Federation’s conference about the needs of people with disabilities for financial services and for greater integration into the broader world, including the financial world. Kemp, who has no arms or legs and moves with prostheses, walks short distances and uses a wheelchair, which he calls significantly faster, for longer distances. He acknowledged that his circumstances, with access to education and a greater degree of financial awareness, are not the norm for many people with disabilities. But he nonetheless maintained that his life is proof that lives led with a physical disability need not be lives led with financial disability. Kemp said that he anticipated it would take effort on the parts of financial institutions to learn the needs of people with disabilities and, when necessary, develop products that can help meet those needs. It will also take education the parts of people with disabilities about their ability to access those products and services. Tackling the financial services gap for people with disabilities would take movement from both sides, he estimated. [email protected]

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