Signature vs. Thumb-impression: the only apparent yardstick used by banks to measure literacy

Recently, a group of six visually impaired people in Thimphu had gone to the Bank of Bhutan to apply for ATM and M-BoB services. But the bank did not accept their request because they could not sign.

This has ignited an interesting discussion within the visually impaired community in Bhutan. I think the banks believe that all those who cannot sign are illiterate and hence, they can be irresponsible and vulnerable to theft and robbery. But not all the visually impaired people are illiterate. Everybody who has studied at Muenselling Institute in Khaling knows how to read and write, at least electronically or in braille.

The only problem with them is that many of them do not have signatures just because they cannot sign. As a result, they are denied access to the online banking facilities which otherwise would make their lives much easier.

When I first joined my service in 2007, I was not confident to use my signature for official purposes. I had in fact learned how to sign when I was in class XII. One of my sighted friends had designed a simple signature for me which I kept practicing until I became perfect.

But I had never used it for any official purpose. So when I was first asked to open a bank account in BoB, I did it with my thumb-impression. Only later on, I realized that I was not eligible for cheque-book which was the only facility during those days which did not require us to go to the bank personally.

As a visually impaired person, it was very hectic for me to visit the bank and stay in the queue for hours every time I wanted to withdraw cash. Soon I learned that some of my visually impaired friends were already having bank accounts on signature and were enjoying the cheque-book facility.

This made me wonder if I also should revive my signature and try to open a new account in BoB. I once again practiced my old signature and finally processed for a new bank account in 2009. I felt nervous when the Manager made me sign the form in front of him. Fortunately, I was delighted that my signature got approved. Since that day, I have been eligible for all the facilities and services offered by the bank to its customers.

Today, I don’t even have to go to the bank to get things done. I can transfer money, pay utility bills and recharge mobile phones/broadband account all through M-BoB facility and I have ATM card to withdraw cash.

This has made my life really comfortable. But there are many visually impaired people in Bhutan who are not as lucky as those of us who know how to sign.

Many visually impaired people feel that if the bank officials should ever be concerned about the possible unauthorized transactions and money theft, it should be with those accounts on signatures and not those with thumb-impressions, because it is the signatures that can be forged, not thumb-impressions. But when those having bank accounts on thumb-impressions are not given access to the latest banking facilities, they feel it’s not fair.

However, it is understandable that the visually impaired people are denied access to such facilities not because of their disability but because of their inability to sign. Those of us who can sign do not have any problem accessing any latest facility the banks introduce.

But this also raises another question: “Does the signature really make the visually impaired account holder immune to possible money theft and unauthorized transactions by others?” The ability or inability to sign does not make much difference. The risks are equal.

Even if we sign or use thumb-impression, we always have to seek somebody else’s help to avail banking services one way or the other. So having bank accounts on thumb-impression and always visiting the bank in person to avail the services alone does not make things safer for us.

For instance, let’s say that a visually impaired person who cannot sign has his account on thumb-impression. Every time he goes to the bank, he has to take somebody else to help him fill up the cash withdrawal or deposit forms. In this case, how can we ensure that he will not get cheated? To be honest, such risks will be low if he avails the services independently through his mobile phone or ATM card instead.

Another twist to the issue is that it seems the procedures are not uniform across the financial institutions. I have been told that Bhutan National Bank does not have any such restriction for visually impaired customers who cannot sign.

It seems even some regional branches of BoB have accepted applications from a few visually impaired customers for such facilities without requiring them to sign. But it’s very disheartening to know that many other visually impaired people who are educated but cannot sign are sidelined along with those illiterate customers as though they are not wise enough to know what they are doing.

I think it’s high time for the Royal Monetary Authority now to review the existing policies of the banks and explore how to make the financial services more disability-inclusive.

Although we cannot see with our eyes, the latest access technology has dramatically transformed our lives in the digital world.

With the help of screen-reading programs, we can easily access mobile phones and computer systems through which we can interact with the virtual world.

It is through such outlets that we can access online banking facilities independently and that there is hardly any visually impaired person in Bhutan today who does not own a smart phone or a computer. They may not be able to sign but many of them are IT-savvy. So I don’t see any major argument why they should not be given the privilege to access those facilities that are available for the educated lot.

By Amrith Bdr Subba

The writer is visually challenged counselor at the Youth Center Division, Department of Youth and Sports under the Ministry of Education

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