March 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 3

Access Issues

A Tech Geek Talks Money: An AFB TECH Lab Rat Discusses the Accessibility of Financial Technology

When I heard this issue of AccessWorld would focus on finance, I figured I better put in my two cents—and in these economic times, that is just about all I can afford. Instead of my usual product evaluation article, here I briefly discuss some of the technology tools available for managing accounts and conducting other financial business. I cover online banking and investing, computer and smartphone accounting applications, talking teller machines, and the latest news in currency identification.

Online Banking

For me, accessible online banking is the best thing since sliced bread. I conduct all my personal banking activities online. All the services available on my bank's website are accessible, and I have used JAWS, Window-Eyes, and System Access on the site. Online, I can easily track the ledgers for my checking and savings accounts, pay bills, transfer funds between accounts and set up electronic transfers to my retirement and investment accounts at other financial institutions. It's easy to track my spending habits and create reports based on expense categories or certain payees.

Financial security and awareness are other benefits of accessible online banking. My wife and I have joint accounts, and she just loves it when I call to question her about a purchase before she even gets home from the mall. Her usual response is something that I can't print here, so I'm trying not to do that too often. Luckily, my gambling transactions are done strictly in cash, so she has no way to track them. (I just hope she never decides to read my AccessWorld articles!) On a more serious note, because it's so easy to monitor your account activity online, I was once able to catch a fraudulent transaction and alert the bank in time to cancel it.

What used to be a real chore to manage my accounts is now a breeze thanks to accessibility of my bank's website. Balancing my checkbook is a thing of the past, and I haven't hand-written a check for at least a half-dozen years. Handling these tasks online eliminates the struggles of using computer-based check writing programs and the tedium of using a writing guide to fill out a check by hand.

Accessible Online Banking Sites

Because an account is needed to fully evaluate a bank's online banking services, I'm not able to provide insights into the accessibility of the various banking sites out there. However, I did query my colleagues and came up with a short list of bank sites with accessible online services:

I encourage you to investigate your bank's online services; send an e-mail to the editor to let us know about any accessible banking sites you discover.

Computer-based Money Management Tools

Most commercial software products used for financial enterprise are not compatible with most screen readers, and that is a serious and unfortunate obstacle to employment for people with vision loss in the accounting and financial sectors. In personal accounting, however, there are accessible options for managing your finances on your computer.

Money Talks

Available from the American Printing House for the Blind, Money Talks ($49) is an account management program for use on a Windows PC. You can create, manage, and print/emboss check registers for all your bank accounts, and you can also print checks. If you have an online bank account, Money Talks can import your transaction information from your bank and use it to reconcile your check register. You can also create categories of transactions and create summary reports for each category. People with low vision can print their register in their preferred font size and type. Money Talks has its own self-voicing tool, or you can use it with your preferred screen reader. You can download a free demo copy to try before purchasing the full product by visiting the American Printing House for the Blind's website.

Microsoft Excel

During my previous career in the investment business, I extensively used Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to track my clients' accounts. After I lost my sight, I continued to use Excel to keep track of my own accounts. The more you learn about spreadsheets, the more you can do with them. In Excel it's easy to set up ledgers and check registers for your bank accounts, set up your spreadsheets to automatically calculate your balance every time you enter a transaction, and generate reports to track your spending habits. Excel is also a good tool for calculating amortization and mortgage or loan payments if you decide to buy a house or an automobile.

If you want to learn more, De Witt & Associates sells training modules for learning how to use Excel and other office applications with screen readers and screen magnifiers. Visit the DeWitt & Associates website for more information.

Mac Software: Splasm Checkbook

Although I have not investigated it, Apple's website lists Checkbook as finance software that is compatible with Apple's VoiceOver screen reader. Priced at $14.95 for a single user or $24.95 for a family pack, Checkbook comes from Splasm Software. The Splasm site describes Checkbook as a "friendly personal finance tool" that "gets the basics just right and keeps it simple." It has a feature set that is very similar to those I described above for Money Talks, and you can also download a free demo to try it out at the Splasm Software website.

iPhone Apps

As I mentioned before, my bank's online services are accessible, and their services are just as accessible on my iPhone as they are on my computer. That was a real bonus recently when weather delays left me stranded at an airport and I had to transfer money to my bank card for dinner and a hotel.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo

Many banks have their own apps designed specifically for accessing their banking features on an iPhone, and the folks at the Mac-cessibility Network have identified two mobile apps compatible with VoiceOver. Bank of America and Wells Fargo customers with iPhones might want to check out their free mobile banking apps, which allow you to do basic online banking tasks, such as checking balances, paying bills, and transferring funds, from your phone. Each also has the ability to use GPS to find nearby branch and ATM locations, a feature not available on their regular websites.

Cash Tracker

Cash Tracker is a $1.99 iPhone app for budgeting and tracking your expenses. It has a register for entering and tracking all your transactions. You can create weekly, monthly, and annual budgets for your expense categories, and easily compare your actual expenses with your budgeted goals. You can also create customizable reports of your expenses, and you can e-mail yourself your transaction history as an Excel-compatible spreadsheet. Although Cash Tracker is compatible with VoiceOver, there are a few unlabelled buttons you have to learn, and a few buttons are not identified by VoiceOver as actual buttons.

Online Investing

Unfortunately, in my less focused, free-spending youth I could never afford the luxury of setting up an online investment account for trading stocks and bonds in any way other than my retirement account. However, I did recently go through the paces of setting up an account on the E-trade website, and it was a fully accessible process. Though I don't yet know how well their account and trade reports are designed, the information they provide about their accounts is fully accessible.

If you work in a non-profit organization, your employer may offer a retirement plan managed by TIAA-CREF, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equity Fund. Although their online services are not perfect from an accessibility standpoint, I am able to get most of my account information and make adjustments to my retirement portfolio.

Talking Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs)

Talking ATMs allow people with vision loss to independently check account balances, transfer funds, and withdraw cash. Thanks to advocacy efforts lead by the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and other organizations, and to the considerable efforts of the Law Office of Lainey Feingold, there are now nearly 100,000 talking ATMs in the United States.

According to Feingold's website, among the banks in the United States that have installed Talking ATMs are the following: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Citibank, Citizens Bank, Washington Mutual, Union Bank of California, BankNorth, Chevy Chase Bank, LaSalle Bank, Sovereign Bank, HSBC, Wachovia, San Francisco Federal Credit Union, and the State Employees Credit Union (North Carolina). All ATM manufacturers do make talking ATMs, so if your bank doesn't have one, try doing some advocacy.

You can read more about talking ATMs on Lainey Feingold's site.

Feingold also reports that the United States Department of Justice recently announced the revised 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which for the first time include detailed requirements for talking ATMs. You can read about the standards on Lainey Feingold's website.

Currency Identification

As many of you know, there has been a lot of talk in our community (as well as a fair bit of controversy) around the issue of currency identification. In 2002, the ACB sued the U.S. Treasury for their failure to design paper currency that is easily identifiable by people with vision loss. The National Federation of the Blind opposed the lawsuit, claiming that the publicity surrounding the lawsuit would reinforce the notion that blind people cannot easily handle currency as it now exists, and that it could negatively affect the chances of a blind person applying for a job that involves handling money. Nevertheless, a federal judge ruled in favor of the ACB, and the ruling has since been upheld in one appellate court.

As a result, the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) has been working to come up with a currency design that complies with the court order and provides people with vision loss meaningful access to U.S. currency. They are also giving appropriate consideration to the interests of domestic and international users of currency, U.S. businesses, and cash-handling and cash intensive industries.

In May 2010, the BEP issued a notice to inform the public of the strategies they intend to propose to the Secretary of the Treasury to accommodate people who are blind or visually impaired, and to solicit public comment on the proposed accommodations. According to the notice, the three main options under consideration are as follows:

  • I. Tactile Feature. As part of the next currency redesign, BEP will develop and deploy a raised tactile feature that builds upon current tactile feature technologies. The tactile feature will be unique to each Federal Reserve note denomination that it may lawfully change, and will provide users with a means of identifying each denomination by way of touch.
  • II. Large, High-Contrast Numerals. Consistent with current practice, BEP will continue its practice of adding large, high-contrast numerals and different and distinct color schemes to each denomination that it is permitted by law to alter to further assist visually impaired citizens.
  • III. Supplemental Currency Reader Program. BEP also proposes to recommend to the Secretary of the Treasury a supplemental measure that will be taken in order to provide access to U.S. currency. This measure would involve a process to loan and distribute currency readers to the blind and visually impaired at no cost to them. BEP believes this process will ameliorate difficulties stemming from the transition that will occur during the co-circulation of notes with and without a tactile feature and large, high contrast numerals, a transition which will persist for many years after the introduction of the tactile-enhanced note.

To read the full notice, "Meaningful Access to United States Currency for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons," visit the Federal Register website.

Currency Identification Tools

There are now several hardware and software tools on the market for identifying U.S. currency. The hardware tools designed specifically for identifying currency include the iBill, NoteTeller2, and Money Talks (note: this Money Talks product is different from the accounting software mentioned earlier). The software products that can identify U.S. currency include products many of us use for scanning and reading printed text, such as the Kurzweil 1000 and Open Book. The KNFB Reader is a cell phone scanning and reading tool that also identifies currency. For iPhone users, the oMoby object identification app and the Vision Hunt app have currency identification functionality.

Personally, I prefer iBill on the hardware side, and oMoby on the iPhone. I would not recommend the first version of the Vision Hunt app.

The Bottom Line

I couldn't resist adding a "Bottom Line" section, even though for this piece I don't have the type of conclusions I usually offer at the close my product evaluation articles. This article is by no means an exhaustive roundup of all the available options for financial management. I know there are other techniques and tools out there, so please let us know of other tools you have found to be useful. We would be particularly interested in any commercial accounting tools that you have found to be accessible.

Here's one final thought for those of you who might be worried about the security of conducting financial business online. I'm certainly not a security expert, but I do generally trust the security of my e-transactions. That said, identity theft is on the rise, and you may want to take steps to protect yourself. A financial advisor recently recommended that I consider identity protection insurance; you may want to investigate this option as well.

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