Early in March, as COVID-19 spread across Canada and the world, people everywhere had to find new ways to go about their daily business — work, buy essential goods such as groceries, visit the doctor and do their banking, among other things. Like stores, banks were open but were advising customers to visit only when necessary.

For seniors who are more comfortable banking in person or customers who are immune compromised, and who found themselves being asked to stay at home as much as possible, that meant having to rely on digital banking.

As digital banking became the go to, it was critical that daily banking transactions and COVID-19 relief applications be accessible to all customers with disabilities. According to a Statistics Canada Report, more than 20% of Canadians report having one or more disabilities. The accessibility foundations that Scotia Digital has put in place in the past two years ensured digital developers had what they needed to build accessibility features into everything they did. Getting it right was important, which is why Scotiabank partnered with Fable Tech, a digital product testing company, to invite customers with disabilities to test its COVID-19 relief website and web applications. 

Scotiabank’s mobile banking app was designed with accessibility at its core and built based on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as well as input from customers with disabilities. 

“When we designed our app, we highlighted that it was accessible by design. When we design with accessibility in mind, we create applications and banking experiences that are simpler and easier for everyone to use,” says Monica Ackermann, Director Enterprise Accessibility, Digital Banking.

The app incorporates sounds and vibrations that let people with vision loss know when transactions are completed; uses rich colour contrast and adjustable print size for customers who are colour blind or have age-related vision loss; has large buttons for customers who have the use of only one hand or have a tremor; and uses plain language for ease of use.

“Whether someone has a cognitive disability, speaks English as a second language or, in times such as these where COVID-19 has dramatically increased anxiety and mental health, we really need to be sure that all of our banking applications are simple, clear and easy to understand,” Ackermann says.

Fast, easy-to-use online offerings garnered Scotiabank a #1 ranking in the J.D. Power Canada Online Banking Satisfaction Study this year, as well as being named Best Bank in North America for Innovation in Digital Banking by The Banker magazine, a Financial Times publication.


It became important for us to make this service available to our customers who use ASL through our online offerings 

— Feriyal Hallajarani, Digital Accessibility Specialist at Scotia Digital

Customer feedback showed there was still more to do. Last month, a project that was a direct result of customer feedback was launched to support customers who are Deaf and communicate by American Sign Language. ASL versions of nine key help articles were created and can be found on the Accessibility help page or on the app. 

During a co-creation session, a downtown Toronto business owner who is Deaf, shared his frustration at trying to find services, such as a chat, or any information on the Bank’s website in the language of his choice — ASL, although he found many other language translations. Eventually, he went to a branch to get access to an ASL interpreter. 

“His story provided incredibly helpful feedback on how we could improve our product and services at the backend for our Deaf community,” said Feriyal Hallajarani, Digital Accessibility Specialist at Scotia Digital.

Hallajarani pulled Jen Serdetchnaia, product design lead, into the co-creation sessions, which led to them working on the ASL project. When COVID-19 hit, it sped up their brainstorming sessions: “It became important for us to make this service available to our customers who use ASL through our online,” Hallajarani says. 

Many may think English subtitles and visual clues would be sufficient, but that isn’t the case, says Hallajarani, who discovered there were differences in grammar between the languages. For example, English uses past, present and future tenses to indicate when an action happened, but in ASL there is a specific hand sign to indicate something happened in the past.

To measure impact, Serdetchnaia points to a couple of lenses Scotia Digital uses: “If something is going to make life easier for a lot of people, we’re going to design for that; but we are going to give the same focus to something that is going to significantly make banking easier for a few people.” 

In reaffirming the Bank’s commitment to inclusion, Brian Porter, President and CEO of Scotiabank recently said “I view our diversity as a real strength and a remarkable part of what defines and differentiates us as a Bank. I also believe that our Bank is only as successful as the societies in which we operate. When there are individuals and communities that feel left out, we cannot be strong.” It is in this spirit that we are advancing accessibility. 

The ASL project’s launch came just ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3. This year’s focus is on spreading awareness and understanding of disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as mental illness, sight or hearing impairments, brain injuries, learning differences and cognitive dysfunctions, among others. That’s music to the ears of Scotiabank’s digital designers. 

“The bank is starting to take a look at a holistic, all-bank approach — or a human centred approach — to customer and employee journeys to ensure our customers and our employees with disabilities have access to good services and employment with dignity, independence and respect,” Ackermann says.