ATM Accessibility

by Chris Kuell


Chris Kuell and his wife, Christine DemeglioFrom the Editor: For close to a decade now the Access Board has been talking about the problem of making automatic teller machines (ATMs) accessible to blind customers. Representatives of banking organizations and ATM manufacturers periodically make reports about how difficult and expensive the problem is to solve. Everyone shakes their heads, and the Access Board goes back to think some more about the problem. Meanwhile blind people listen to wisecracks about Braille on drive-through machines and head for the teller's window to conduct their banking business.

The Danbury Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut has had enough. Its members set out to inform themselves about the problem and work on finding a solution. At the very least they have discovered that a good bit of inertia has so far prevented a solution. Perhaps if other chapters take up the challenge, we can begin to bring the kind of pressure that may help to get things moving. Dr. Chris Kuell is a new member of the NFB. This is the way he describes what happened:


Recently I began attending NFB meetings at a new chapter in Southern Connecticut. While reviewing old business at the December meeting, an issue concerning banking practices in our state caught my attention. Maureen Carr, a fellow Federationist, detailed her encounters with Webster Bank.

The trouble started in the spring of 1998. The local news reported that several banks in our area were instituting new policies, which included charging a fee for using a live bank teller. The banks want to encourage customers to use their Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) because they are cheaper for the bank than paying a teller to conduct transactions.

ATMs have text displays for instructions and keypads for entering transaction information. However, without the help of a sighted assistant a blind person can't read the text display in order to enter the required information. Various banks offer different models of ATM machines, and there is little consistency among them. While blind users may be able to memorize the instructions and commands for a specific machine, we are not free to operate the multitude of other ATMs independently. So, having no alternatives, most blind people are forced to do their banking at a counter with a live teller.

When Maureen brought this to the attention of Webster Bank in June of 1998, they agreed to waive all transaction fees made for use of a teller, encoded her account to reflect this decision, and considered the matter resolved.

By now this had become a hot topic at the NFB chapter meetings, and the chapter president, Jeff Dittel, became involved. When pressed as to why their ATM machines were not accessible to blind people, Webster Bank replied that the manufacturers of the ATMs did not offer accessible models, so there was nothing the bank could do. They also pointed out with obvious pride that their machines had been equipped with Braille touch pads since 1993. Maureen and Jeff wrote letters and made phone calls to the bank, pointing out the futility of these Braille key pads since a visually impaired person had no way to read the screen's text display so could not know what keys to push. Along with this information Maureen submitted a list of suggestions regarding banking policies and blind customers. The list included the need for bank officials to consult visually impaired customers before making banking accessibility decisions.

The bank's attitude was dismissive to say the least, and the final pronouncement was that "maintaining standards for security, reliability, and performance" are of top priority, and alternative technologies are not available. When the manufacturer of Webster Bank's ATM machines was contacted, it claimed there was no demand for blind-accessible machines from banks, and hence it did not produce such equipment. This is the never-ending wheel of blame and excuse in which blind people get left behind.

Automatic Teller Machines are everywhere in our society today. Airports, banks, malls, grocery stores, and even convenience stores have them. They are easy to use, fast, and a regular banking mechanism for sighted people today. An article in the January 25, 1999, Newsweek detailed how ATMs are now being used for dispensing gas, stamps, airplane tickets, and ski-lift tickets. All indications are that the trend of more goods being available through ATM purchases will continue.

In our quest for independence blind people deserve this same convenience. According to reports by the Lions Club there are approximately 1.3 million visually impaired people over the age of twenty-five in the United States. It is safe to assume that nearly all of these people have bank accounts, surely a significant enough number to be considered valuable customers. While I can understand the banking industry's commitment to cost reduction, the price of accessibility to the banks would be minimal. Furthermore, the cost would be offset by attracting additional customers and would generate invaluable public relations benefits. The bank's argument that accessible machines are not available is weak and refutable. Along with the Braille keypads already in use, it would seem simple enough to add inexpensive telephone headsets for audible instructions to ATM machines.

Perhaps Webster's vendor does not offer accessible teller machines, but an ATM manufacturer in Canada does. In 1997 NCR, a Canadian company that specializes in data and financial transaction processing equipment, made available what they claim is the first audio banking machine. They are currently being installed in Canada. Curtis Chong, Director of the Technology Department of the National Federation of the Blind, forwarded a press release to me. It was dated October, 1997, and said that NCR's banking machines were designed and developed in conjunction with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind as consultants. Apparently these ATMs have headphone jacks available for anyone who wishes to use personal headphones to conduct audio-assisted electronic transactions.

This article is not intended as an endorsement of NCR's product line; I have never used one of its ATMs. But this press release demonstrates that access technology for ATMs is currently available. I trust that, when a few large banks begin using audio-assisted electronic banking machines, it won't be long before other banks follow.

While the actions and attitudes of Webster Bank devalue the blind customer, they are not atypical. I called four other banks in Connecticut (Fleet Bank, Peoples Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nutmeg Federal Savings and Loan) as well as three in New York (Bank of New York, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Putnam Valley Savings and Loan), and none offered blind-accessible banking machines. I did have some very entertaining discussions about the logic and value of Braille keypads on drive-through ATMs, but found no answers to accessibility issues. Clearly the technology is now available for blind access to electronic teller machines. So call your local banks and ask about accessible ATMs and why they don't have them. Repeated requests will encourage and motivate banks to bring about the changes that we must insist on.

That's what Dr. Kuell sent the Monitor Editor. I turned to Curtis Chong for a bit more background. We conclude this article with Mr. Chong's comment:

"My discussions with NCR indicate that building in voice-output is not a trivial task, given the way the current crop of ATMs is designed. However, what NCR does have available is a voice toolkit which facilitates the incorporation of voice-output into custom ATM applications. This is extra work, which the local banks would have to arrange to have done.

"Should we wait for standards from the Access Board? My sense is that we should not. The problem is fairly simple to solve technically. However, so far no one has had the will to solve it."

Perhaps if the organized blind begin putting pressure on banks across the country to solve the ATM-access problem, everyone will discover that there is good reason to purchase the Canadian technology or develop alternatives. We certainly have nothing to lose by trying.