ATMs for the Visually Impaired

Blind people, and people with visual impairments, can go into any bank in the United States and use an automatic teller machine unassisted. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it a requirement that financial institutions be equipped with ATMs for the visually impaired. That’s because, under the law, having to wait in line to speak to a teller and ask for assistance with an ATM machine places an undue burden on visually impaired people. Not to mention, getting a teller’s assistance with an ATM requires customers to say all of their personal banking information out loud. And doing makes the customer vulnerable to thieves and skimmers.

How Are the Visually Impaired Guided Through an ATM Transaction?

ATMs for the Visually Impaired

ATMs for the visually impaired include Braille, both on the keys and Braille instructions. The keys of an ATM are designed in a certain way to assist the blind. Keys are raise, not flat against the keypad. The numbers are set up in a way that makes them easy to find, too. They’re arranged in order – either ascending order or descending order – and the number five has a tiny raised piece on it to help those with visual impairments orient themselves.

Most important, these ATMs “talk”, they deliver through voice recordings all the information that seeing customers read. These pieces of info include:

  • instructions for making transactions
  • error messages
  • the date
  • the time

Visually-impaired people listen to ATM voices through headphones. Banks provide headphones, but in order to avoid germs, customers can bring their own headphones to the bank. (These machines work with most standard versions of headphones and earbuds.) That way, these customers can keep private their personal information, items such as:

  • their monthly bank statements
  • the balances in their various accounts

What’s more, these ATM voices are not simply recordings that are played back at the touch of the button. They are more sophisticated than that. For example, customers can ask that the voice repeat a certain sentence. And some ATMs speak in voices that sound human, as opposed to the emotionless, non-modulated voices of many computers. Customers can adjust the volume of an ATM voice.

How are these ATMs Helpful to Others Not Visually Impaired?

Senior citizens who are not legally blind but who have issues with their eyesight can derive benefit from talking ATMs. That’s because these machines employ contrasting colors to make various keys stand out, making them easier to spot. In fact, everyone is allowed to use a talking ATM. Therefore, you can use one of these machines if you have 20/20 eyesight but you simply do not like to use touchscreens for whatever reason. These machines also provide assistance to people who are illiterate or who have reading disabilities.

History of the Talking ATM

The talking ATM made its public debut at San Francisco City Hall on October 1, 1999. Today, there are more than 100,000 of these machines in operation in the United States, with more coming all the time, and they can be found in nations all over the world. Indeed, they are more affordable now for banks than ever. Some companies that make ATMs even offer trade-in programs, whereby a bank can swap an existing ATM for a talking ATM, and thereby obtain the talking ATM at a reduced rate. Or banks can simply purchase conversion kits for the ATMs they already have; these kits include the voice software that makes the ATMs talk. Banks also have the option of setting up talking ATMs that speak languages in addition to English. Bank of America, to take one example, has owned and operated thousands of bilingual ATMs for almost a decade.

As a final warning, realize that many standalone ATMs – the kind of ATM you find on street corners and inside or outside non-financial institutions like convenience stores – do not talk. But as these ATMs age and are replaced, the financial institutions that operate these machines often replace them with ATMs that do have voice capabilities.

Voice Activated ATMs and New ADA Requirements

Voice Activated ATMs and New ADA Requirements

Voice-activated automatic teller machines were designed to help people with visual impairments, including some elderly people, make financial transactions. Not every blind person can read Braille, and so ATM’s equipped with Braille keypads don’t always suffice. In addition, Braille keypads may allow blind people to enter the information they need to, but they don’t provide a means of delivering directions to visually-impaired customers. So unless a blind person were to walk into a bank already knowing exactly how to use the ATM, it might not be possible for him or her to make transactions without assistance from a bank employee. And waiting in line to ask an employee for help can be time-consuming, not to mention embarrassing. Indeed, in the past, some visually-impaired people tended to avoid ATM’s altogether.

However, a voice-activated ATM solves most, if not all, of those problems. Such a machine works like this:

  • A customer plugs his or her headphones into the ATM’s universal audio jack.
  • The ATM’s voice activation system is triggered.
  • The machine begins to speak to the customer, giving instructions, telling him or her which keys need to be pressed in order to complete a certain transaction.
  • The automated voice may also explain how to use the ATM’s Braille keypad, in case that customer does know how to read Braille.

Voice-activated ATM’s are not new. Banks large and small began rolling out this technology early in the first decade of the twenty-first century. For example, all new ATM’s purchased by Australian banks since 2003 have been voice-activated; banks in that nation began installing voice-activated ATM’s as part of a pilot program in 2002. Also in 2002, Banknorth, a small American chain of banks with headquarters in Portland, Maine, began to install voice-activated ATM’s in 400 of its banks, a program that was completed in cooperation with the National Federation of the Blind. In the end, Banknorth – now TDB Banknorth – spent five years and almost five million dollars to get these machines operational.

TDB Banknorth and others may have voluntarily set up voice-activated ATM’s, but today doing so is no longer optional for financial institutions in the United States; it’s mandatory. That’s because, between 2004 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice handed down a series of rulings on the issue of voice-activated ATM’s. The result of these decisions was that, as a new stipulation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, all banks, credit unions and other financial institutions were required to install at least one voice-activated ATM in every location where they maintained ATM’s. The deadline for these installations was set at April 30, 2012 – the deadline had originally been March 15 of that year, but was extended to give banks enough time to purchase and install these devices. (These rulings came with other requirements for ATM’s as well, including guaranteed wheelchair access.)

It’s interesting to note that the estimated cost of a single voice-activated ATM can vary widely, depending on whether you ask a financial institution or you ask an advocacy group for the visually-impaired, such as the aforementioned National Federation for the Blind. But it’s somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000. Still, whatever the cost may be, most banks found it more economical to purchase entirely new machines rather than update old ATM’s with new software and processing capabilities.

Financial institutions which are not in compliance with the ADA’s voice-activated ATM standards risk lawsuits and other disciplinary measures. Still, in many parts of the country, some banks have yet to fully comply with the new law. In 2012, for instance, a visually-impaired, 30-year-old man name Robert Jahoda filed federal lawsuits against several banks in his home state of Pennsylvania, as well as a bank in Ohio, because they had not yet equipped their facilities with voice-activated ATM’s. Further, a Boston-based consumer protection website called Consumer World conducted a study one month after the voice-activated ATM law’s April 2012 deadline. Consumer World’s researchers traveled around Boston, plugging headphones into random samplings of ATMs all over the city. And the results of this survey were not too impressive: at least a quarter of the automatic teller machines that these researchers tried out did not have a voice activation capacity.