It was a Sunday afternoon in 1995 when I desperately needed cash for an upcoming event and was nowhere near the single automated teller machine (ATM) whose keypad and sequences I had memorized. My daughter was six years old and a gifted reader.

"You'll have to read the screen to me," I told her, on our walk to the ATM whose location I had learned from a few inquiries to people in the area. But the ATM was higher than a six-year-old's eye level, and I had to lift her up after each step of the simple transaction was executed. More than once, our responses were too slow, and that machine made that unmistakable error sound, repetitious beeping, as it spit my card back out of the slot bearing the braille label "Insert card." Eventually, the transaction was completed, but along with the cash in my hand, I walked away with no small amount of aggravation.

Blind people around the country have many such stories to tell. We have asked strangers to enter our private PINs (personal identification numbers), have inadvertently entered $200 when we wanted only $20, and have been outsiders looking in at the convenience of transferring funds from savings to checking, depositing money in our own accounts, or reading the account balance appearing on that printed receipt withdrawn from the silent machine.

History of Accessible ATMs

As early as 1982, Diebold Inc., an ATM manufacturer, was consulting with Jeff Moyer, then rehabilitation director for the Cleveland Society for the Blind, on braille key set designs for automated teller machines. Conversations began at that time about the feasibility of machines that would verbalize text and were abandoned for a variety of reasons, including, as Moyer puts it, "patronizing concerns such as blind customers being vulnerable to others observing their transactions."

Following the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, thousands of ATMs around the country appeared with varying amounts of braille on them. Some had braille numbers on the keys and braille identifying such key points as where to insert the card, withdraw the cash, or remove the receipt. Some even had panels of explanation outlining the sequence of steps for making a cash withdrawal. Since January 1992, Access Guidelines required that at least one machine at each location offer "instructions and all information for use" to be made "accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments."

Although the addition of braille, therefore, was a good faith approach on the part of the banking industry to comply with the law in making machines accessible to blind customers, the results were less than favorable. Certainly, the ability to orient oneself independently to the layout of keys on an ATM was a step beyond complete inaccessibility. Unfortunately, simply marking keys with static information still precluded the interactive operation ATMs were designed to facilitate. Screen prompts appearing on the visual display guide sighted customers through any transaction, and this information remained completely unavailable to blind customers. Even for those customers who memorized the sequence of a particular machine, withdrawing cash was the only function possible.

The problem, in part, stemmed from interpretation of the law. Even though the ADA dictated that banks render ATMs independently usable by blind and visually impaired customers, there was no definition of what form that independent access would take. It has taken time and a remarkable organized advocacy effort to develop a more satisfactory solution.

The solution, after considerable hard work on the part of many individuals, has been to make the machines talk. Providing a verbal translation of the visual screen information is now making independent banking possible for the blind and visually impaired users of about 300 ATMs around the United States, and the number is growing. It should come as no surprise, however, that the solution has taken many forms and is very much a work in progress.

How a Talking ATM Works

In March 2001, while attending the CSUN "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" conference in Los Angeles, I took a cab to a nearby Bank of America after banking hours to have my first look at a talking ATM. Equipped with only my own ATM card and a common earphone, I approached the machine. Locating the universal earphone jack, I plugged in and immediately heard a welcome message. The human voice gave me a quick orientation to the braille-labeled keypad and instructed me to find the braille-labeled point for inserting my card. Throughout the transaction, I was prompted by the human voice scripts to select withdrawal from checking or savings, was informed where the desired keys were located, and heard my transaction confirmed each step of the way. On completion, the voice directed me to the spot on the machine where cash could be removed and I could collect my receipt. As Peggy Martinez, a California-based singer and technology trainer, so aptly summed it up: "It was incredible that I had to wait till I was 40 years old to deposit or withdraw money from my own bank account for the very first time, but doing it was an absolute thrill!"

The particular machine I used apologized at transaction's end for not having account balances available verbally at this time. It also apologized for the $1.50 surcharge to my account, since I am not a Bank of America customer. As many AccessWorld readers can probably understand, no apologies were needed!

Emergence of Talking ATMs

In October 1999, the first talking ATM in the United States was installed by the San Francisco City Credit Union in San Francisco's City Hall. Prior to that installation, however, agreements were already being finalized with Wells Fargo and Citibank in California, whose voice-equipped machines began appearing up and down the state of California over the course of the next year. T- Base Communications, which had been making machines that talk for the Royal Bank of Canada since 1997, was a tremendous source of information. Since the installation of that first machine in the United States, agreements have been made with Bank of America—the largest national banking company to commit to talking ATMs at this point—for installations throughout California and Florida and a plan of installing talking machines in 14 other states over the next five years. Similar agreements have resulted in installation by Fleet Bank of Boston throughout Massachusetts and neighboring states and, most recently, Bank One Corporation unveiled 30 talking ATM locations in Ohio and Illinois. The combined agreements at this point promise thousands of ATMs in various locations around the country by the end of 2003.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the agreements to date has been that they have occurred without litigation. No one has sued anyone. California-based disability rights attorneys Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian have worked cooperatively, on behalf of blind individuals and three consumer-based blindness organizations, to develop agreements with each of the above-named banking companies. In each instance, the agreement has included a commitment, with dates, to install a specified number of voice- equipped ATMs, to deliver banking information to blind and visually impaired customers in alternative formats, and to work toward accessibility of bank web sites. It warrants noting that the efforts of these attorneys have not gone unnoticed. Dardarian and Feingold were awarded an American Foundation for the Blind Access Award in March 2001 and were named among the top 100 lawyers in their state by California magazine for their innovative work on behalf of blind and visually impaired banking customers.

More Than a Simple Plug-in

The talking ATM is as complex as its history. As Kelly Pierce, a Chicago-based disability rights activist who has worked tirelessly to distribute information to both the banking industry and blind consumers regarding talking ATMs, puts it: "One cannot take an ATM machine, load sound files on its hard drive, and plug it in and expect it to work for blind people or anyone else. The ATM owner, processor, and manufacturer need to work together to certify a configuration and to ensure that the processor is driving the machine properly."

First, a bank purchases an ATM—in this case, one that allows voice-equipped operation. Next, the bank develops its own software and human-voice "WAV" files to match its particular ATM operation. Two of the major manufacturers of ATMs, Diebold and NCR, have been the primary providers of voice-equipped ATMs. At this point, the "talking" is achieved through "WAV" files, a recording of human voices reading prepared scripts, anticipating each of the verbal prompts needed in a range of transactions. Although the account balance, for example, was not available on the particular machine I encountered, it is made possible on some machines by stringing together a series of sound files. If, say, your balance is $156.47, the ATM would first access a WAV file recording of a voice saying "One," followed by a file pronouncing "Hundred," and another saying, "Fifty," and so on until the complete amount was spoken. Clearly, this approach is working, but it is costly.

Many proponents of talking ATM technology are supporting the less expensive, albeit possibly less esthetic approach of employing synthesized speech to deliver ATM information. Curtis Chong, technology director for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) explains, "People who are not used to listening to a computer every day want a high quality product and believe that has to be human speech. They don't understand that for blind computer users listening to synthesized speech every day, the important thing is the delivery of information."

In the interest of exploring the most cost effective ways of delivering quality information to blind customers at as many ATM locations as possible, Diebold and NFB forged an agreement in November 2000. The agreement, in part, commits both parties to researching the most cost effective solution, probably text-to- speech, of making ATMs accessible to blind people. Diebold committed $1 million to the Baltimore NFB training center and pledged to work collaboratively in developing an improved talking ATM model. The timing for such an agreement was particularly right, Curtis Chong points out, because Diebold was making plans to equip Washington DC-based Rite Aid pharmacies with a low-end CSP ATM (called low end because these machines only dispense cash). Although NFB originally filed suit against Rite Aid and Diebold, Chong explains that Diebold pursued the collaborative agreement because "they just wanted to do the right thing."

In addition to working to find a solution for an improved and cost- effective machine, Diebold has pledged to install 25 CSP machines by August 2001 in locations around the country. The pilot will last at least 90 days. Other noteworthy components of the agreement are to replace three of the Rite Aid Washington, DC-area ATMs with talking models, to install a talking ATM at the NFB Baltimore headquarters, and to sell at least 500 of the "improved" machines every 12 months beginning February 2002. The agreement does not require Diebold to modify or upgrade existing machines, but to install at least one new talking machine at each location where a newly manufactured machine is placed. The improved ATM standard determined by Diebold and NFB will probably be one with an internal speech chip rather than sound files of human voices, but the exact model to be used for the pilot project has not been unveiled as of this writing. What is certain, however, is a collaborative effort and mutual desire to increase the number of accessible units around the country.

One More Approach

An article on the progress of talking ATMs would not be complete without mentioning yet another approach being taken in Pennsylvania as the outcome of a settlement agreement between blind plaintiffs there and PNC Bank. Rather than equipping ATMs with either a speech chip or WAV files, PNC's plan is to equip each customer with a cellular phone for calling a 24-hour access line for human assistance. The representative pulls up the screen of the particular ATM the blind customer is attempting to use and talks the user through each step of the transaction. Each ATM is to be equipped with a placard identifying its location in both braille and large print, to enable customers to identify their specific locations to the telephone assistant. Customers must register with PNC to be helped when they call. Cell phones are issued by the bank, but can be used only to call for ATM assistance or to dial 911.

The effectiveness of this approach remains to be seen, but a few obvious drawbacks are inherent. A successfully completed transaction depends upon more factors in the PNC approach. The cell phone battery has to be charged, the signal at the precise location of the ATM must be a strong one, and the human operator assisting the blind user through the transaction must be sufficiently trained. As Kelly Pierce puts it, "The evenness of quality and performance of an automated system are more or less ensured, whereas evenness with a human-assisted approach can vary."

The PNC solution is being tested in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and, if successful, will be functional at 250 ATMs in those cities initially, with all 2,800 PNC ATM locations nationwide eventually being added.

The significant message in all of this is that technology of varying degrees is enabling blind and visually impaired bank customers to handle their own transactions independently at a growing number of ATM locations around the U.S. and Canada. At this point, which solution is the best solution is perhaps not nearly of as much interest to end users as is the fact that they are able to access their own bank accounts without intercession.

For More Information

You can hear the entire orientation to the Bank One talking ATMs on The Columbus Dispatch web site. Go to and select the link for listening to a sample of the talking ATM.

Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Access Issues