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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 2

Access Issues

You Can Bank on It, Part 2: Advocacy, Outreach, and Legal Authority for Talking ATMs

My article on automatic teller machines that produce audible output (Talking ATMs) in the January 2002 issue of AccessWorld covered basic features and technology, vendors and availability, and how to find machines in your area. This time, I focus on the advocacy efforts that led to the advent of Talking ATMs and other accessible banking services and the need to promote the presence of Talking ATMs, explain the legal authority for the machines, and highlight some progress in introducing this technology internationally.

Importance of Advocacy

All the Talking ATMS in the United States (which generally work with a standard audio jack and standard audio headphones to provide privacy) are operational because of advocacy by the blindness community, in particular, and the disability community, in general. Years before the first Talking ATM was installed in October 1999, advocates met with industry representatives and served on regulatory committees, pressing the issue of accessible ATMs. The first Talking ATM in the country was installed in the Office of the Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco during a push by advocates and city staff to make City Hall (where the office is located) 100% accessible. Still other Talking ATMs were installed as a result of lawsuit settlements (against Diebold, Chevy Chase Bank, and Mellon Bank) or individual advocacy efforts. In 2000, the blindness community mounted a rigorous and effective advocacy effort to ensure strong regulations on Talking ATMs in the proposed joint revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and the Architectural Barriers Act guidelines (discussed in the section on Legal Authority for Talking ATMs).

Most of the Talking ATMs have been installed as a result of settlement agreements negotiated by lawyers for the blindness community and the country's largest financial institutions. Almost all these settlements—legally binding documents requiring the installation and maintenance of Talking ATMs, as well as other accessible services, such as braille and large-print bank statements and accessible online banking—were entered into without lawsuits being filed. Instead, we have used a method we have termed "structured negotiations" to emphasize the formal and serious nature of the negotiations, which include elements such as written demands and the use of lawyers and legal authority. A key component of this method is the willingness and ability to file a formal lawsuit should the negotiations be unsuccessful. This system of structured negotiations has resulted in Talking ATM agreements with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, First Union/Wachovia, Fleet, Bank One, Washington Mutual, Sovereign Bank, and Union Bank of California. Other agreements are in the works.

The decision not to file lawsuits has been critical to the success of the Talking ATM effort for many reasons. First, the Talking ATM technology evolved quickly, a situation that is not typically suited for the static nature of most litigations. Most important, collaboration between blind end users, ATM developers, and bank personnel (both business and technical) has been critical to the advancements made to date, and that collaboration would have been unlikely or, at least considerably delayed, if lawsuits had been filed. There is no substitute for bankers who are deciding how to spend a bank's money to hear firsthand from a blind person what it is like to be unable to perform as basic a function of modern society as withdrawing cash from an ATM. Likewise, there is no substitute for coders and script writers experiencing firsthand how a blind user is reacting to the work they have done. Lawsuits can cause people to dig in their heels and inherently set up roadblocks to real communication. Although they are, of course, an important and useful tool, their use must be carefully considered when technology is involved.

Although the national grassroots effort by the blindness community has been successful, that effort will not be over until every ATM location has an accessible ATM. The simplest form of advocacy involves using the machines that exist and sharing information about Talking ATMs with other people who are blind. Some members of the community have real concerns about the security of using an ATM, and dialogue with users of Talking ATMs may be important in addressing some of these concerns. Most important, because ATMs have been inaccessible for the past 30 years, people have found other methods of conducting their financial transactions. The ability to conduct these transactions independently has been unavailable for so long that many persons are slow to alter their practices in this regard and are often encouraged to do so by other members of the blindness community.

Another form of needed advocacy is for people to contact their financial institutions about installing Talking ATMs or requesting institutions that have already installed some machines to install Talking ATMs at particular locations. Requests should always be in writing, and responses should be recorded. Highlighting vendor information and examples of Talking ATMs in the area should prove useful.

Need for Outreach and Promotion

One of the biggest hurdles facing the national Talking ATM effort today is the lack of outreach by most banks that install the machines. (Bank of America, as discussed later, is a notable exception.) From the beginning, the developers of ATMs considered the need for outreach critical to consumers' acceptance of banking by machine. Don Wetzel, co-patentee of the first ATM, summed up the prevailing philosophy in the early 1970s:

We had designed posters that [banks] could buy and use, we had a video that we would show to the tellers to train them as to what to tell the customers. We had mockups of the machine that we put in the lobby so that one of the customer personnel at the bank [could show customers how to use the models].

(This quote is taken from a fascinating interview with Wetzel, conducted in 1995 by the curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, that is available on line at <http://americanhistory.si.edu/csr/comphist/wetzel.htm>.)

Outreach and promotion of the availability of Talking ATMs are no less important today than was outreach and promotion of the original ATMs. Audio is not simply a new feature on a machine that has been around for 30 years. It makes the machine available for the first time to persons with visual impairments and others who have difficulty reading ATM screens. Unfortunately, most financial institutions are doing little, if anything, to promote their Talking ATMs to either the public in general or to the blindness community. The bank that deserves the greatest kudos in this regard is Bank of America. This bank, which will soon have over 3,000 Talking ATMs, has developed outreach tools that are available to disability groups, rehabilitation offices, and orientation specialists. Tools include an audio-described, high-quality video describing the Talking ATM, audiotapes of the orientation, and brailled information. In March 2001, Bank of America brought the first Talking ATM to the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, and in August 2001, it ran national advertisements promoting its Talking ATM program and featuring a blind woman doing karate with sighted opponents. It has also exhibited Talking ATMS at both the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind national conventions for the past two years.

Fleet Bank, with close to 1,000 Talking ATMs, staged community-based press events when it introduced its Talking ATMs in February 2001 and when its Talking ATMs became available in additional states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut. Other banks, including Citibank, First Union, Wells Fargo, Union Bank of California, Sovereign Bank, and Bank One, have issued useful press releases with quotes from community members, but have done little else to promote or publicize the machines.

Although the banks are ultimately responsible for promotion and outreach of Talking ATMs, members of the blindness community can do their part. Most important, people can aid the national Talking ATM effort by using the machines in their communities and helping to spread the word about their importance. Most banks will send speakers to or set up tables or booths at local meetings or conferences. The local mass media have been interested in this story, especially in states where there has been little or no coverage. Relevant newsletters, web sites, and radio reading services should be encouraged to cover the Talking ATM issue and provide information about nearby locations.

Finally, an avenue for promoting Talking ATMs that has barely been explored is to reach out to persons with disabilities outside the blindness community. Anyone who has difficulty reading an ATM screen—whether because of dyslexia, mental retardation, or illiteracy—will benefit from Talking ATMs. Advocacy and outreach for Talking ATMs thus provide an opportunity for coalition building among all members of the disability community who can benefit from inclusive and accessible technology that is the core of Talking ATMs.

Legal Authority for Talking ATMs in the United States

The legal mandate for accessible ATMs comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although there is much talk about the proposed revision of the accessibility guidelines for that law and for the Architectural Barriers Act—the so- called new ADAAG, which explicitly discusses audio output for ATMS—the existing version of ADAAG, in place since 1992 and incorporated into Department of Justice (DOJ) ADA regulations, already requires Talking ATMs. Section 4.34.5 of the current ADAAG (also known as the Standards for Accessible Design because they have been adopted by the DOJ) states that "instructions and all information for use shall be made accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments." But instructions and all information on an ATM cannot be "independently usable" unless there is audible output, coupled with the features such as tactile controls and clearly scripted orientations discussed in last month's article.

In April 2002, the U.S. Access Board issued the Draft Final ADAAG, based on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking first published in November 1999. While instructive and important, the guidelines will not become an official part of the ADA until (and unless) they are adopted by the DOJ.

Section 707 of the new guidelines specifically requires that ATMs be "speech enabled" and that speech must be capable of being repeated or interrupted. There is a specific requirement to voice balance inquiry and error messages appearing on a receipt, as well as other information. Exceptions to the audio requirement are narrowly tailored and include "printed copies of bank statements and checks" and details regarding the location of the machine, date and time of transaction, and customer's account number.

Because the current language of the DOJ regulations requires "independent usability," the fact that the Draft Final ADAAG is not yet legally binding on financial institutions is no excuse for the failure of financial institutions and others to begin installing Talking ATMs. Indeed, although no date is set for the final approval of the rules by the DOJ, some manufacturers of Talking ATMs are advertising that their products meet the proposed standard. Independent of the provisions of ADAAG, Talking ATMs are effectively mandated by ADA requirements that public accommodations "effectively communicate" visually delivered information. Information on an ATM screen is "visually delivered," and the only way to communicate that information effectively is to provide audio.

International Efforts

Talking ATMs are being introduced in countries around the world, as evidenced by recent articles posted on the Internet. The spread of Talking ATMs internationally is logical: the corporations that manufacture ATMs in the United States also manufacture them globally, as can be seen from this report posted on May 7, 2002, on the Italian web site <www.adnkronos.com>:

FIRST TALKING ATM MACHINE IN BRESCIA FOR PEOPLE WITH VISION PROBLEMS: Milan, May 7th (Adnkronos): ATM machines that talk for the blind and others, such as the elderly, who have difficulty in visualizing written words. The first four machines of this type in Italy are in Brescia, activated by the Banco di Brescia that purchased them from Diebold Italia Ltd. The new ATM machines, a press memo from the banking institute states, are identical to the standard ones and function with an ordinary card. Simply by pushing button 5 (which stands out on the console) clients can choose a vocal guide service that, with opportunely registered messages, accompanies the client through all of the phases necessary to draw money.

Other countries that have been mentioned in recent stories have included India (where the Talking ATMs speak both Hindi and English; see the story at <www.theweek.com/22sep29/life4.htm>) and Australia (also Diebold installations) and Spain (<www.atmmarketplace.com/research.htm?article_id=12109&pavilion=23&step=story>).

See the January 2002 issue of AccessWorld for how to get more information on Talking ATMs or find their locations in your neighborhood.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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