Banks Mull Their Options on ATM Service for Blind

By Fung, Amanda; Gordon, Jennifer | American Banker, January 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Banks Mull Their Options on ATM Service for Blind


Fung, Amanda, Gordon, Jennifer, American Banker


Regulators plan to issue guidelines by yearend on how banks must provide ATM accommodation for the blind, and banks are already trying to figure out the best ways to comply.

The guidelines -- which could eventually become rules -- will probably require that some automated teller machines be outfitted with phones or earphones, a concept several larger banks are now experimenting with.

For years advocacy groups for the blind have been pressuring some large banks with lawsuits. In response Bank of America Corp., U.S. Bancorp (which is not being sued), Wells Fargo & Co., and Citigroup Inc. have begun installing talking ATMs, which provide recorded voice instruction through headphones plugged into the machines.

Another banking company, PNC Financial Services Group Inc., has responded with a different solution: cellular phones that connect blind people to special customer service representatives who will read aloud the information on their screens.

Last Friday, the American Bankers Association hosted discussions between industry officials and advocates for the blind about the best way to solve the problem, and a second meeting is being planned for this spring. "We got a lot of things out on the table," said Paul Schroeder, vice president government relations at the American Foundation for the Blind. But, he said, "there are many things left to be settled."

For one thing, there is no agreement about what equipment or system should be made standard. Nor have the two sides agreed how many ATMs a bank must make accessible to the blind. So far, the banks that have been doing the conversions have been outfitting one machine per location.

While PNC's idea of giving cell-phone handsets to its blind customers on a pilot basis may sound cheaper than retrofitting dozens or even hundreds of ATMs, it may not turn out to be so efficient. According to the plan mapped out by PNC and some blind litigants, trained customer service people will need to be on call around the clock to guide blind people in the use of the bank's ATMs.

One of the advocates involved in the negotiations with PNC, Curtis Chong, expressed doubt about the settlement, which is subject to review after a trial period.

"Voice-guided ATMs are the only way to make ATMs accessible to the blind," said Mr. Chong, who is director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind. "I believe that the use of cell phones is a solution which gives the appearance that one is trying to sidestep voice-guided ATMs."

The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, an independent federal agency that issues guidelines for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, proposed in November 1999 to make ATMs more accessible by requiring they connect to talking devices, such as headphones or telephone handsets. The board anticipates that its proposal will be finalized by yearend, then adopted by the Justice Department, which historically issues legal standards consistent with the board's guidelines. …

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