NFB Sues for ATM Access

From the Editor: At 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24, 2000, President Maurer, Technology Department Director Curtis Chong, and NFB attorneys  Daniel Goldstein and Paul Kay met members of the press at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to announce that the NFB, its D.C. affiliate, the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington, and several blind individuals were filing suit against Chevy Chase Bank, Rite Aid Corp., and Diebold over ATM accessibility. The NFB had been discussing and planning such a move for a number of months. Last fall Chong opened a checking account at the Royal Bank of Canada and then traveled to Toronto to be video-taped independently conducting financial business using one of the bank's talking automatic teller machines (ATMs). According to Rob Evans, Director of Self Services for NCR, a Diebold competitor in the ATM-development and production field, it is not yet possible for every kind of ATM transaction to be voiced by audio software, but most can be. Mr. Chong, the Director of Technology for the National Federation of the Blind, contradicted Mr. Evans's statement, saying that it is most definitely possible to articulate all kinds of ATM transactions, especially if the designers of these transactions make plans to do so early on. Chevy Chase Bank's 800 ATMs in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington and in tourist attractions and other public places in the nation's capital are inaccessible to everyone who cannot read the ATMs' tiny computer screens. In addition, despite the availability of truly accessible ATMs today, in fulfillment of an agreement with Rite Aid, Diebold has chosen to place inaccessible models of its ATMs in Rite Aid drugstores.

The ADA mandates that instructions and all information for use in ATMs be made accessible to and independently usable by blind people. But the law's language is far from specific. As a result Diebold argues that its current access arrangements are a sufficient accommodation. The NFB maintains that a static set of Braille key labels cannot provide access to complex financial activity for which sighted users depend upon a video display to conduct their ATM business.

As always in a lawsuit, the press conference was only the first step in a long process that will unfold in the coming months, perhaps years. Here is the press release the NFB circulated. It is followed by an article that appeared late that same afternoon:

For Immediate Release

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND SUES OVER ATM ACCESSIBILITY

Suits Against Chevy Chase Bank, Rite Aid, and Diebold Charge ADA Violations

WASHINGTON, D.C. (5/24/00)

In a warning shot to ATM owners and operators nationwide, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), its local affiliate the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia, the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington, and several blind individuals filed suit today against Chevy Chase Bank, charging that the bank's more than 800 automated teller machines (ATMs) in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a separate suit the plaintiffs charged Rite Aid Corporation and Diebold, one of the leading manufacturers of automated teller machines (ATMs), with violating the ADA.

The lawsuit against Chevy Chase Bank states that the bank's ATMs--many of which are located in major visitor sites such as the Smithsonian (including the National Air and Space Museum), the National Zoo, and all three area airports--are inaccessible to blind people because they use computer screen text prompts to guide customers through transactions. These screen text prompts are not translated into a medium that is accessible to the blind, such as audio output.

A recent agreement between Diebold and Rite Aid under which Diebold is installing and operating ATMs in Rite Aid stores nationwide also violates the provisions of the ADA, according to the plaintiffs, because the ATMs being installed use screen text prompts that are inaccessible to the blind.

"Our nation's capital should set the example for the nation to follow by being fully accessible to persons who are blind or otherwise disabled," says NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer. "It is distressing to know that the only ATMs available in such national treasures as the Smithsonian are inaccessible to the blind. It is equally troubling that a company like Diebold, which manufactures and sells voice-output ATMs that can be used independently by the blind, has chosen instead to install machines in Rite Aid stores that rely solely on screen text prompts."

The two lawsuits, both of which were filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ask the court to order the defendants "to make the necessary technological modifications to their ATMs to allow access by persons who are blind or visually impaired," says NFB attorney Daniel Goldstein.

Because Diebold manufactures voice-output ATMs, but chose not to install them in Rite Aid outlets, the suit also seeks punitive damages against Diebold under the provisions of the D.C. Human Rights Act. "The bottom line is that the technology exists to make these ATMs fully accessible," Maurer said.

"Unfortunately, the defendants are installing ATMs that are inaccessible to the blind, even though the cost for voice-output ATMs is negligible, and providing them would not fundamentally alter the nature of ATM services or retail drugstore facilities."

The ADA requires that "instructions and all information for use [in ATMs] be made accessible to, and independently usable by, persons with vision impairments." While some of the defendants' ATMs have Braille keypads and labels, the suit charges that this feature is "an ineffective accommodation under the ADA."

"Not all persons who are blind can read Braille," explains Dr. Maurer.

"Moreover, Braille keypads and labels are static. They do not provide accessible and independently usable, sequential, computer screen instructions to guide a blind customer through a bank transaction. As a result blind customers basically have little choice but to rely on others to do their banking for them."

According to the NFB, the only effective means to make ATMs accessible to the blind is voice-guidance technology, which allows blind persons to hear step-by-step instructions. Voice-guidance technology is accessed by plugging personal headphones into a universal audio jack installed in the ATM or by using a telephone handset, also installed in the ATM.

The NFB has long been actively involved in promoting adaptive technologies for the blind so that blind people can live and work independently in today's technology-dependent world.

The organization runs the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at its headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. The Center, which houses more than $2 million worth of hardware and software designed specifically for the blind, is the world's most extensive demonstration and evaluation center for computer-related technology serving the needs of blind people.

That was the press release, and it wasn't long before members of the press covering technology and the ATM industry took note. The following story appeared in the May 24, 2000, issue of ATMMagazine.com, an Internet publication.

ATM Accessibility

The National Federation of the Blind drew a line in the sand for the ATM industry today.

Contending that the industry has not done enough to make its machines accessible to the visually impaired, the Federation--along with its District of Columbia affiliate, the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington, and several blind individuals--filed two lawsuits charging ATM deployers with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

NFB President Marc Maurer said his organization felt compelled to file the suits because other, less aggressive efforts have failed. "We have tried negotiation and tried urging the regulators, and it hasn't worked. Today we are asking the court to make the requirements of the law plain."

In the first suit the NFB names Chevy Chase Bank, noting that the bank's 800 ATMs, many of which are located in high-profile sites like the Smithsonian and the National Zoo, are inaccessible to blind people because they use computer text screen prompts to guide customers through transactions.

"Our nation's capital should set the example for the nation to follow by being fully accessible to patrons who are blind or otherwise disabled," Maurer said. "It is distressing to know that the only ATMs available in such national treasures as the Smithsonian are inaccessible to the blind."

In a separate suit the NFB charges Rite Aid Corporation and Diebold, the nation's leading manufacturer in 1999, with violating the ADA. Diebold is installing and operating ATMs in Rite Aid stores nationwide under an agreement signed last year. Again the NFB contends the machines use screen text prompts that are inaccessible to the blind.

Because Diebold manufactures voice-activated ATMs, but did not install them in Rite Aid stores, the suit also seeks punitive damages against the manufacturer under the provisions of the D.C. Human Rights Act.

"The bottom line is that the technology exists to make these ATMs fully accessible," Maurer said. "Unfortunately, the defendants are installing ATMs that are inaccessible to the blind, even though the cost for voice-activated ATMs is negligible and providing them would not fundamentally alter the nature of ATM services or retail drugstore facilities."

While Diebold did not comment on the pending litigation, spokesperson Joseph Richardson said, "Diebold firmly believes its products meet current federal guidelines regarding access for persons with disabilities. Diebold actively promotes a wide range of solutions that help consumers access and use its products."

And, he added, "Diebold is committed to work within any and all legal requirements to help consumers access its products."

The lawsuits, both of which were filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ask the court to order the defendants "to make the necessary technological modifications to their ATMs to allow access by persons who are blind or visually impaired," said NFB attorney Daniel Goldstein.

The ADA requires that "instructions and all information for use (in ATMs) be made accessible to, and independently usable by, persons with visual impairments." While some of the Chevy Chase Bank and Rite Aid ATMs have Braille keypads and labels, the suits charge that these features are "an ineffective accommodation under the ADA."

"Not all persons who are blind can read Braille," Maurer said. "Moreover, Braille keypads and labels are static. They do not provide accessible and independently usable, sequential computer screen instructions to guide a blind customer through a bank transaction. As a result blind customers basically have little choice but to rely on others to do their banking for them."

According to the NFB, the most effective way to make ATMs accessible to the blind is voice guidance technology, which allows blind ATM users to hear step-by-step instructions. The user typically activates the voice guidance feature by plugging headphones into a universal audio jack installed in the ATM or by using a telephone handset installed in the machine.

In a written statement W. Scott McSween, executive vice president of Chevy Chase Bank, said, "Talking ATMs show promise. However, the challenge is that the technology is still in development and may not be readily achievable.

"Chevy Chase Bank will continue to pursue technologies that make banking services more convenient and accessible to all consumers and would be pleased to work with representatives from the National Federation of the Blind in this regard."

At a press conference announcing the lawsuits, the NFB showed a videotape featuring an audio ATM deployed by the Royal Bank of Canada. The bank began developing the audio ATM in 1996 and has installed fifteen of them across Canada, mostly in Ontario.

Several U.S. financial institutions, including Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Bank of America, have announced plans to install audio ATMs. Citibank has deployed five such machines in California. Wells Fargo intends to install twenty audio ATMs in California this year, then roll the technology out to 1,500 California locations over the next three years.

BofA, the nation's largest ATM owner, has installed four in California and is testing about a dozen more there. The bank's plans call for a total of 2,500 ATMs in Florida and California during the next three years.

BofA spokesperson Ann DeFabio said the bank may install more machines in other states as well. "We strive to meet, if not exceed, the ADA standards wherever we do business."

Maurer hinted that more lawsuits could follow. "This is the beginning," he said. "We are not prepared to have these machines and others like them established throughout the U.S. in a continuing pattern that prevents an entire class of people from having the opportunity to do the same kind of business and banking as the rest of society."