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Making ATMs Accessible: Hesitating on Audio Guidance Is a Gamble

By Tracy Kitten LogoThis story was originally published on, Oct. 11, 2005; reprinted with permission. © 2005 NetWorld Alliance LLC. All rights reserved.

While the Department of Justice has yet to approve proposed revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, many financial institutions and ISOs are waiting to make the audio-guidance leap.

Their argument for waiting: The software upgrades and hardware replacements are far too costly to make until the ADA requirements are precise. America's Community Bankers estimates that upgrades will range between $1,000 and $3,000 per ATM, an expense that FIs will have to budget far in advance. But ADA experts say waiting is a gamble, one that will likely lead those who wait down a path to almost-certain litigation.

Berkeley, Calif., disability rights attorney Lainey Feingold said the Department of Justice, which is expected to approve guideline revisions next year, won't likely bestow mercy upon those who wait. "To ask for a delay to the new regulations now would be a rollback, really, to something that's been in place since 1992," Feingold said. After the U.S. Access Board released its July 2004 ADA revisions, which included a new requirement for audio-enabled ATMs, the department allowed the industry to review the revisions and submit comments by May 2005.

Now, Feingold said, five months after the comment deadline, every ATM operator should be moving forward instead of making excuses. "The small banks said they need more time to do this ... but there are small banks doing it now," Feingold said. "The idea of independent usability, I don't think that is debatable in this country anymore."

"I think we have more than 30,000 [talking ATMs] in the U.S. today, and anyone who does not have a talking ATM in place right now is at risk of litigation," she added.

Tom Kelly of New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. said nearly 6,700 of the bank's 7,000 ATMs are now audio-enabled. "In the last three years, we've replaced all of our ATMs," Kelly said. "And since voice-enabled is pretty much a standard issue on ATMs today," most of Chase's fleet is expected to be in compliance.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp. has more than 7,000 audio-enabled ATMs in 46 states, Feingold said. And Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank and Cleveland-based National City Corp. have made strides to upgrade ATMs, too, she added.

So Why Are Some Waiting?

Timothy Hoyle of Reading, Pa.-based IRB Consulting Group said he's "amazed" by the number of FIs that are waiting to upgrade their fleets "until they are told they have to do it."

But FIs argue that the rules, even as they read today, leave a great deal of room for interpretation; the revisions also have gray areas. And that's left deployers concerned about investing in upgrades that don't explicitly meet new requirements.

A case in point: In February 2005, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled in favor of E*trade Access Inc. and E*trade Bank, both of which were sued by the National Federation of the Blind. In its ruling, the court said that E*trade is not required to provide headsets at ATMs, since current ADA guidelines "do not mandate or require headphone jacks." Ambiguity has left some FIs scratching their heads, trying to balance business with practicality.

"Most just don't want to spend the money until they are required to," albeit a risky decision, Hoyle said.

"From a compliance perspective, I think those people are setting themselves up to spend more. ... If banks wait, their resources are going to be limited."

Deployers need to be proactive. "If I were to guess, when the DOJ finally does put out the new regulations, I think they are going to give financial institutions a year or less, because the technology is there and the larger financial institutions are already doing it."

Manufacturers Set the Pace

Manufacturers are taking the first step by making audio capabilities on ATMs standard features. Long Beach, Miss.-based Triton Systems and North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold Inc., which were both approached about accessibility issues by advocacy groups, are taking compliance seriously.

Every Triton ATM shipped within the United States is equipped with speech technology, said Bill Jackson, Triton's Vice President of Research and Development. "Every terminal we send out now has audio guidance capabilities," Jackson wrote in an e-mail.

"The only ones in which the software actually supports this is the U.S., but all countries are capable of talking."

Diebold is working closely with groups like the National Federation of the Blind during ATM development, "to get user input upfront," said Dave Barker, a principal Design and Brand-integrity Strategist for Diebold.

"When we think about accessibility, we take more of a proactive approach to design," Barker said, adding that the industry should be thinking about technology, regardless of whether it's "required" to.

Diebold's Vectra ATM, which was released at the BAI Retail Delivery conference last year, was recognized by the Industrial Designers Society of America for being the first ATM to use haptic technology, which provides sensory feedback. Instead of a keypad, Vectra is equipped with a dial, which allows users to navigate menus using their sense of touch. "Users operate the dial in much the same way as a combination lock," Diebold said in a news release, "twisting it both clockwise and counterclockwise to make their selections."

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