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This article was published in the NAFCU (National Association of Federal Credit Unions) magazine November/December 2005 issue of "The Federal Credit Union"

Credit unions can provide disabled Americans with access to the financial mainstream.

The numbers are staggering. People with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor and one of the largest unbanked segments of society. Yet, despite the magnitude of this population, traditional financial institutions have done little to reach out and serve it.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census and a 2004 National Organization on Disability/Harris Poll, of the 54 million Americans who have a disability (nearly 20 percent of the total population):

- 34 percent of adults with disabilities live in households with total income of $15,000 or less, compared to only 12 percent of those without disabilities.

- 10 percent of people with disabilities own homes, compared to 71 percent of those without disabilities.

- 58 percent of people with disabilities are asset poor (do not have enough resources to live at the federal poverty level for three months).

- 54 percent of people with disabilities have no savings accounts and 69 percent lack checking accounts.

The need is enormous. If these statistics are correct, approximately 10 percent of the entire U.S. population—who coincidentally have disabilities—have no relationship with the financial mainstream. Many people with disabilities live on government benefits, such as Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. So, ask yourself, with no financial account, where are these checks being cashed? Without direct deposit or any savings account, where are people safeguarding what is often their sole source of income?

Credit unions have a historied reputation of reaching out to communities that traditional banks find little value in serving. Low-income populations ignored by for-profit financial institutions have found homes in credit unions because of the desire to accommodate individualized needs. People of low income frequently have credit issues, unstable income streams and life situations that require more personalized attention. While this accurately describes many people with disabilities, the market remains a largely untapped sector of the population.

Model service for all

Credit unions—big and small—across the country are reaching out to people with disabilities. Here are some prime examples:

- Queen of Peace FCU in Arlington, Va., is a small, faith-based organization that ensures members with disabilities are provided with the services and accommodations they need. The credit union recently moved into a new facility at the ministry center in their church. It specifically designed its small office so that members using wheelchairs could easily conduct their business.

- Bethex FCU, with two locations in the Bronx, N.Y., has taken pro-active measures to ensure that it is serving people with disabilities and their families. As a large credit union, Bethex provides numerous services to members in the community. It recognizes that many of its members have disabilities and are struggling to survive on government benefits. As a result, the entire staff has received disability access and accommodation training, and the credit union has a partnership with the United Cerebral Palsy center, which facilitates its involvement with the community. Bethex FCU continually seeks out ways to better serve people with disabilities, especially in the area of employment, by conducting marketing campaigns to local businesses.

- Communities United CU in Wichita, Kan., shows that size need not be a limitation to serving people with disabilities. Utilizing established relationships with the local Independent Living Center and several other disability service providers, CUCU employs people with disabilities, has assisted negotiations with Social Security on benefit reductions and repayment issues and has a flexible individual development account program that provides for the unique needs of participants with disabilities. The credit union’s most recent outreach effort will take place this fall. CUCU is hosting a benefit dinner to honor local people with disabilities who serve as role models in the Wichita community.

- Opportunities CU (formerly Vermont Development CU) in Burlington, Vt., manages an Adaptive Equipment Revolving Loan Fund. This program, funded by the Vermont Assistive Technology Project, provides loans for adapted vehicles, computers and a wide variety of assistive technological devices.

The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions is part of an innovative collaboration with the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center at the University of Iowa, the School of Community Economic Development at Southern New Hampshire University and the World Institute on Disability. They, under the auspices of the Asset Accumulation and Tax Policy Project, have teamed up to connect people with disabilities to opportunities to build assets and become more financially self-sufficient.

The federation also has formed a disability awareness and education committee and has plans to adapt the financial literacy curriculum, “Each One, Teach Many,” this fall to better accommodate the needs of members with disabilities.

A special needs trust—sometimes called a supplemental needs trust— provides supplemental funds for a disabled person without disqualifying him or her from benefits received from government programs such as Social Security and Medicaid.

One type of SNT that could be of interest to credit unions is a Pooled SNT, which has to be established through a nonprofit association or credit union. Anyone can put money into a pooled trust—parents, grandparents or even the individual with the disability (the beneficiary). While the trusts pool the funds of many beneficiaries to invest and manage, each beneficiary still has his or her own account.

A big advantage of pooled trusts is that they are willing to handle much smaller accounts than a bank or trust company, so people of modest means can have access to sophisticated trust services. The credit union or nonprofit agency administering the trust takes care of all the tax preparation, investment decisions and serves as trustee.

Entrepreneurs with disabilities

Contrary to popular belief, obtaining disability benefits is not always an easy process. Many people who become disabled mid-career, whether through an accident or illness, find that proving their disablement to Social Security can take years. During this time, applicants are forced to live on credit or be dependent on friends and family. Frequently, even those with perfect credit standing before becoming disabled have built up considerable debt by the time they receive approval. Even if substantial back payment is received, the damage has been done to their credit rating.

When this situation is coupled with a disability that involves significant medical expenses, it is easy to see why obtaining a loan can be next to impossible for a person with a disability. Yet, the desire of people with disabilities to own their own home or business is just as great, if not more so, than non-disabled people.

For a variety of reasons—personal aspirations, discriminatory working conditions, flexible work schedules and environments—more and more people with disabilities are turning to self-employment. And entrepreneurs with disabilities have the same major concern as those without disabilities: how to access capital.

The Abilities Fund (www.abilitiesfund.org) is an excellent resource for organizations seeking to assist their members with disabilities. It offers a groundbreaking tool called “Informed Choices” that helps budding entrepreneurs with disabilities assess whether self-employment is a viable option.

The Abilities Fund also provides training and technical assistance for organizations. Its expertise can help your credit union minimize the risks associated with microenterprise while funding those that are prepared for the challenge.


People with disabilities are not unique in their desire to own a home of their own. Yet, the statistics prove that they are becoming part of the American Dream at a significantly slower rate than those without disabilities. Wide varieties of homeownership programs exist for people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, most traditional lenders are not willing to bother with the paperwork and hassle for something that typically produces little profit. But if you are, there are a number of programs that can help you. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (www.hud.gov/groups/disabilities.cfm) has several opportunities for people with disabilities to become homeowners. Many public housing authorities across the country complain that finding a lender willing to take on a mortgage from a Section 8 Homeownership Program voucher is extremely difficult. Credit unions can help fill the void by becoming authorized HUD lenders.

Fannie Mae’s Community HomeChoiceª Loans for People with Disabilities are designed to serve low- to moderate-income borrowers who have a disability, or who have a family member with a disability.

The mortgage offers a low down payment of $500 from the borrower’s own funds with the remainder from flexible sources. Credit unions can apply to be a Fannie Mae-approved lending partner at www.fanniemae.com.

These are just two examples of programs designed to help people with disabilities become homeowners and an excellent opportunity for credit unions to serve them. Other programs not specific to serving people with disabilities include the American
Dream Downpayment Initiative (www.hud.gov/addi) and the first-time homebuyer programs offered by many cities (www.hud.gov/local/index.cfm).

A natural fit exists for credit unions and people with disabilities; yet, the next steps necessary for inclusion have to be made in meaningful ways. For those disabled individuals relying on public benefits, most traditional banks are reluctant to market to such an impoverished segment of society. But credit unions have the unique opportunity to reach out to the disability community and serve as a bridge to economic independence.

Megan O’Neil is project coordinator of the Access to Assets Project at the World Institute on Disability (www.wid.org/publications/?page=equity). She can be reached at megan@wid.org or 866-723-1201

Affirmative Language :)                   Language to Avoid :(
person with a disability, people with disabilities, disabledhandicapped, cripple, victim, crip, unfortunate, defective, handi-capable
wheelchair user, uses a wheelchairwheelchair-bound
blind, low vision, partially sightedblind as a bat, sightless, the blind
mobility disability deformed, maimed, paralytic, lame
psychologically/emotionally disabled, emotional disorder the mentally ill, mental, crazy, insane
developmentally disabled retard, mentally defective
birth anomaly, congenital disability birth defect, mongoloid
a person who is deaf or hard of hearing suffers a hearing loss, the deaf
person with epilepsy spastic, epileptic, spaz
speech disability, communication disability tongue-tied
non-disabled healthy, normal, whole
non-vocal, a person who is non-verbal mute, dumb
person of short stature midget, dwarf
learning disability slow

One of the most frequent questions the World Institute on Disability’s toll-free hotline receives from people wanting to serve the disability community is, “Where are they?” Our first response is that the questioners are already serving them—they just are not aware that they are. This is simply because most disabilities are not visible.

Considering that back problems and heart conditions are the most common disabilities (not exactly folks with wheelchairs and white canes that are most frequently associated with disability), it should come as no surprise that many of your members have disabilities.

However, considering the numbers cited above, much remains to be done to make inroads towards full inclusion. When reaching out or marketing to members with disabilities, use images that positively depict disability and ensure that your Web site and facilities are accessible. And remember that language matters (see the disability vocabulary). You can market your services at vocational rehabilitation offices, independent living centers, the Veterans Administration (offices and hospitals)—anywhere your credit union typically markets