Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006

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Access at the Point-of-Sale: The U.S. Netcom Solution

by Chad Allen

Chad Allen
Chad Allen

From the Editor: If you shop indepen-dently, you have no doubt frequently faced the dreaded point-of-sale (POS) terminal at checkout counters across the nation. When the moment comes to pay, you find that you are expected to use some version of touch-screen technology to complete the transaction and to enter the PIN for your atm card. If you do not see well enough to execute this transaction independently, you have no choice but to trust that all the information the clerk has entered is correct, and, even more disturbing, dictate your PIN to him or her for entry.

Several years ago, when this technology was first evolving, such equipment had a keypad that the blind customer could use to enter the information, but recently this has been replaced by touch-screen technology that requires the customer to enter data using a flat screen while reading changing printed information and instructions. No one in the blindness community has been happy with this turn of events, but the question has been what to do about it.

The American Council of the Blind, the California Council of the Blind, and the American Foundation for the Blind recently negotiated an agreement with Wal-Mart (under threat of a lawsuit) to lessen the inaccessibility of its checkout procedures. As a result Wal-Mart announced that it would return to the old keypad technology. Blind customers still cannot read the instructions or sale information, but they can once again independently enter their PINs.

A couple of years ago the NFB of California worked to pass legislation requiring that POS machines be accessible. This was certainly a step forward, for Californians at least, even if no one was quite clear about what constituted true accessibility. Chad Allen is one of the California Federationists who worked with the state legislature to pass this law. He now works for U.S. Netcom, a company that provides an actual solution to the access problem plaguing POS machines. We can hope that other companies across the country will also begin developing solutions to point-of-sale terminal problems. Because blind consumers should be fully informed about available POS solutions, we have asked Chad Allen to describe the U.S. Netcom product, which is certainly an advance over the Wal-Mart solution of turning back the calendar. This is what he says about this vexing problem and one promising solution to it:

The growing popularity of touch-screen-based technology ignores the needs of blind or visually impaired people. Full accessibility requires devices with both tactile and audible components. They should be consistent and useable by as many groups as possible. But experience teaches us that most so-called improvements turn out to be both a help and a hindrance to the efficient interchange between consumers and retailers.

Ideally the introduction of new technology into our lives will result in more not less accessibility. During my five years as a member of the National Federation of the Blind many devices have become more accessible, but others have not. One of the many challenges of accessibility which has not yet been resolved is that of credit card transactions.

The IC eCommerce point-of-sale terminal
The IC eCommerce
point-of-sale terminal

At one time access to a checkout terminal at the completion of every transaction was easy and efficient. Now touch-screen-based credit card terminals do not allow blind people to enter their PINs independently. When blind or visually impaired customers use ATM cards for payment, we are often unable to enter our private PIN code, leaving no choice but to say it aloud so that someone else can enter it for us. Anyone nearby can overhear and take note of the code. Furthermore, without knowledge of the actual recorded total, we are easy victims of overcharge by accident or merchant fraud.

As an organization committed to securing, maintaining, and improving the quality of life for blind people, the members of the NFB must ensure equal access to the devices used every day in our communities.

Technology devised to make merchant services easier and more effective for the owners of retail, grocery, and related places of business is not usually designed to meet the needs of the customer, especially the disabled customer. As blind people we must advocate for clear, comprehensive security and functionality, allowing the best solution for both owner and consumer now and in the future. Instead, at many points of the POS process we find ourselves losing, not gaining access to pertinent information. We must ensure access if we are to protect our right to the security and equality our sighted peers enjoy.

In 2003 AB 2312 passed the California legislature through the efforts of our California affiliate, and as a result since 2004 the law has required that any newly purchased touch-screen-based credit card terminals or any upgraded units be equipped with tactile number keypads. By 2008 all touch-screen-based credit terminals must be fitted with a tactile number keypad. With a tactile keypad in place, most blind people can certainly complete the basics of this process independently, but is the process truly accessible as legislated? This law was a positive step, but more is required to provide true equality and complete access in this important process.

During my time as an intern at the National Center for the Blind, I worked further on this issue. There I was introduced to Ron Katz, president of U.S. Netcom. He developed a credit card terminal which offers both a tactile number keypad and an audible component. It provides the blind or visually impaired customer access to fundamental aspects of the transaction process. This new card-acceptance device eliminates fraud and errors by including blind-friendly techniques using a combination of tactile and audible elements.

The IC eCommerce unit is a point-of-sale device that meets American National Standards Institute standards for accessibility. It enables blind people to enter their PIN codes without assistance and features a terminal keypad with a center key bearing a raised dot and two raised ridges to guide hand placement. The unit’s critical function keys have raised letters and high-contrast red and green “enter” and “cancel” buttons, while a raised circle and a raised X are used as nonvisual elements. A large screen with high-contrast backlighting enables visually impaired people to see transaction information, while a built-in, high-quality speaker provides aural confirmation of encrypted PIN entry and purchase amounts. The PIN unit also separates from the main device so that it can be handed to a customer using a wheelchair. Best of all, it costs no more than a typical credit card terminal sold on the market today.

As members of the blindness community in the United States, we have economic clout. We should make our purchases at stores that provide access and security. Elliot Schreier, a distributor of adaptive equipment and former director of the American Foundation for the Blind’s Research and Development group, puts it this way: “For the first time blind and visually impaired consumers have equal access to important financial transactions.”

Curtis Chong, president of the NFB in Computer Science, says, “This device is certainly the first one I have seen in today’s marketplace that allows a blind person actually to hear the total amount of the transaction as well as enter a PIN without requiring sighted assistance.”

Over twelve million blind or visually impaired people live in the United States. Some estimate that as many as one in eight Americans has some sort of visual impairment. Consumers with significant visual impairments (as well as others) will favor and promote
merchants who provide accessibility and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Once I completed my internship at the National Center for the Blind, I was invited to work with U.S. Netcom to provide an accessibility solution for credit card terminals throughout the United States and globally. For further information or to express questions or concerns, please contact me. If you experience inaccessibility to any credit card terminal, I urge you to tell the retailer that accessible units are available. Please contact me if you would like U.S. Netcom to help by offering information. I can be reached by phone at (323) 467-6712 or by email at <cfallen@sbcglobal.net>.

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