Sunday, May 13, 2001

Alive & Well

Talking ATMs sound sweet

        It isn't often that I wish to live anywhere but Cincinnati. An experience last month in Los Angeles and news last week in Columbus and Chicago triggered twinges of wistfulness, however.

        The cause of this is nothing more exotic than an automated teller machine.

        At an ordinary Bank of America ATM in Los Angeles, I plugged in the earphone from my purse, and listened to a friendly voice welcoming me to the machine.

        After a brief verbal orientation to keypad layout and other points on the face of the machine, I inserted my card, entered my PIN, and proceeded with an independent withdrawal of my own money for the first time.

        Verbalizing the prompts on the screen, the “talking ATM” asked the usual questions. Withdraw from savings or checking? If checking, press “Key X” which is located in the top right corner of the keypad. After pressing keys, my choices were confirmed in my ear as they are on the screen, and so it went, until the friendly voice told me where to remove my cash, my receipt, my card, and the transaction was completed. The voice also informed me that, because I am not a Bank of America customer, my account would be charged $1.50. For the first time, I didn't care.

        Like 12 million other Americans unable to read the ATM screen, my only solution to using them has been to memorize the sequences of one particular machine or to trust others — sometimes total strangers — to read the screen prompts for me.

        Yes, there is braille on thousands of machines around the country, but braille is static information, providing none of the direct feedback that directs a bank customer through a transaction. Placing braille labels on ATM machines was a good faith effort on the part of the banking industry a decade ago to comply with the law, requiring that at least one machine at each location have information rendering it usable by people with impaired vision.

        Due to the effort of two California-based civil rights lawyers, Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian, along with blind advocates in a growing number of cities, voice-equipped ATMs have been appearing since 1999. The first machine to talk in the U.S. was installed by the San Francisco City Credit Union in San Francisco's City Hall in October 1999.

        Since then, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Fleet of Boston and, most recently, Bank One have installed about 400 voice-equipped ATMs with commitments to install thousands more over the next five years.

        Most recently and closest to home, Bank One unveiled 15 talking ATMs in Columbus and another 15 in Chicago April 25. All agreements to date have been collaborative between banks and customers, facilitated by the attorneys but without adversarial litigation.

        The intent, in other words, is generally to do the right thing.

        Diebold Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of ATMs, forged an agreement last November with the National Federation of the Blind to research the most cost-effective way of producing ATMs with speech.

        Meanwhile, the numbers of installations are growing in several cities. For those of us in the Tristate who are unable to use the traditional ATM, the only solution is to grab the opportunity whenever we're in Columbus, Chicago, or nearly any city in California, Florida, or Massachusetts. I predict that no one will mind paying that $1.50 surcharge for equal access.

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- KENDRICK: Talking ATMs sound sweet