In mid-April I received a letter from Anna Kresmer, our librarian and archivist at the Jacobus tenBroek Library. For some time she had been trying to find articles in the Braille Monitor or other publications that would discuss how a person who loses vision handles incoming mail and particularly how they deal promptly, accurately, and securely with their finances. The person making the inquiry assumed that such information was readily available, and so too did Anna. I did a brief Google search and couldn’t find anything, so I jotted the note which appears below and was then encouraged to put it in a place where it could be easily found. I urge some of you who know more about this subject than I do to use this article as a springboard for a better one: what alternatives did I fail to provide; which are out-of-date, and which would better serve blind people trying to wrestle with their incoming mail and the bills that make up so much of it? Here is my letter:
Hello, Angela. I have your letter from Anna, and as I said in our call, like her, I don't know of any articles that discuss this in any detail. Let me see what I can do in a letter to you, and perhaps it can someday be worked into an article.
Many bills that come to us have traditionally been delivered by the United States Postal Service. With few exceptions these are presented in standard print, and the question for a blind person is first how to read them and second how to pay them. The traditional answer has been the use of a human reader who could read the bill aloud, write a check at the instruction of the blind person, and, if necessary, write out an envelope to return it. Just how someone gets a human reader varies. Some people will pay an hourly rate for the service they need and schedule it one or more times weekly. Some will arrange to trade services, doing babysitting, housecleaning, or some other task for the reading they need done. Some people will actively look for volunteers from their church or a civic group to which they belong, and, in addition to being a friend, will compensate the volunteer reader with an occasional meal, a night out with the dinner and a movie, or some other arrangement that will let the reader know that he or she is appreciated.
If you are going to use a human reader, it is essential that you find someone you can trust, and let them know that the work the two of you are doing together is strictly confidential. It is likely that I do not want to advertise how much money I spent at Best Buy last week or how many times we went out to eat despite the sizable grocery bill that is evidenced by my check register. If I get a notice in the mail that says Uncle Harry has left me $10,000, this is something I want held close. Building a good relationship based on trust and shared respect is absolutely essential, but it is also rewarding. One of the people who works for me uses the money I pay her to buy groceries. In the past I have had people who were able to make their student loan payment because of our work together. People who need money are extremely reliable, loyal, and the mutual need that we have for one another not only makes us a good team but often generates a tremendous friendship.
As reading systems for the blind have evolved, a number of people have found that the printed page no longer presents the same kind of barrier it once did. We are able to read most of the correspondence we get, but there is still some difficulty in writing a check and returning it to the company or person we owe. There are computer programs that will print checks and some that will allow one to affix his or her signature to them. Many of us have adopted a nationwide service offered by most banks called Bill Pay. The Bill Pay system is tied directly to one's bank account, and a list of payees is entered into the system. In my own case Bill Pay is aware that I have an account with the electric company, the gas utility, and many of the major credit card companies in the country. It is also aware that I sometimes need to send money to people in the form of a check because they will not have a way to receive electronic transfers. Bill Pay will allow me to set up monthly payments when I have a bill with a fixed amount and a definite due date such as my house payment or my daughter’s car loan. I can make payments at any time by going into the system, finding the name of the company or person I want to pay, and entering a manual payment. Not everyone is comfortable using a computer, and not everyone has the computer skills necessary to navigate the website operated by Bill Pay. For many of us, however, it is a dream come true.
Although I enjoy using technology, have several products that can read printed material to me, and am quite able to use my computer to keep track of my bank balance and to pay bills with Bill Pay, I still use a paid reader at least once a week and sometimes twice. I do this because I know of no other way to handle incoming mail that is as flexible as a person who can both read and write directly on information I received. No technology-based system I know does as good a job at helping me fill out a form or review a financial document to see if all of the information on it is current. No technology-based system gives me the pleasure I get when I interact with a human being who needs the money I pay as much as I need the service he or she offers. No machine I can access has the ability to quickly sort my incoming mail into organized stacks I can process. I usually have a stack each for bills, advertisements, charitable solicitations, NFB material, and lastly the letters and cards that congratulate me on another birthday, express their sympathy on the death of a loved one, or otherwise convey something personal to me.
I think the key to adequately handling one's finances is knowing how to keep track of the money you have on hand and the things that are likely to come along and claim it. A person who is blind must have a good way to communicate with herself. Memory simply will not do the trick. A good calendaring system is also helpful, for without some reminder about a bill I can't pay today but intend to pay in a week, I will find myself constantly facing delinquency notices and their accompanying fees.
This is all I can think of at the moment that may be helpful to you in figuring out how blind people handle financial matters. If you need more information, please let me know.