Money Talks -- and So Should ATMs

Banks have been slow to make their machines audio-enabled for the visually impaired. They're being pound-foolish

By Suzanne Robitaille

Phil Dyson sure hopes he's pressing the right buttons. He's blind, and when he goes to his bank's automated teller machine, he must rely on memory to extract cash. Even though banks have put Braille labels on ATM keypads, this doesn't help him much. "I don't read Braille," says Dyson, a teacher for students with disabilities in upstate New York. "I had to ask a bank representative to come out and show me how to use the ATM, and now I have to remember [the] sequence."

While the ATM's convenience has revolutionized banking for most Americans, blind and visually impaired people feel left out. Dyson and others are pushing for "talking" ATMs that would provide speech as well as text at menus and screen prompts, and recite specific information, such as a record of a customer's transaction.


  The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires that banks eventually make their ATMs audio-enabled. The requirement's details probably won't be finalized until later in 2002, and banks will then have one year to adopt the new regulations. However, the industry is arguing that a longer period is necessary, given the technological challenges and the expense.

Financial institutions own the bulk of existing ATMs in the U.S., and they argue that they don't make enough money on each transaction to warrant costly changes such as equipping all machines with audio capability. Since the ADA has not yet finalized the rules, the banking industry doesn't want to implement sweeping changes, only to find that the ADA requires a different set of functions.

"We support audible ATMs for blind users," says Nessa Feddis, general counsel for the American Bankers Assn. (ABA). "However, it has limitations with regard to dynamic information such as error messages and account nicknames. The [technology] is promising, but it's not clear whether it works, and it would require major changes to the systems."


  From the disability community's perspective, the banking industry is moving too slowly. Even though ATM keypads feature Braille, that's not enough, disability advocates argue, since only one-fifth of the nation's 1.1 million legally blind can read Braille. "If you can't follow the screen, Braille is useless," Dyson says.

A few big banks like Fleet and Bank of America have installed some talking ATMs over the years in select states, but "there's a long, long way to go before the blind can walk up to any ATM and take for granted that it will talk to us," says Curtis Chong, technology director at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

In the meantime, the visually impaired community has turned to another venue of electronic banking -- stand-alone multimedia cash dispensers that are often found in supermarkets and shopping malls and charge at least $1 per transaction. Because everyone is hit with a fee, these dispensers are the envy of banks that provide free cash ATM withdrawals to their own customers.


 These ATMs "talk" to anyone who prefers an audio alternative to the screen. And the money-making opportunities are huge. Eventually, according to their manufacturers, talking ATMS will distribute many goods and services, such as movie tickets and postage stamps. Perhaps someday, fast-food restaurants will take orders this way. These more dynamic machines also provide dozens of fee-income opportunities, such as audio ads that play while a transaction is being completed.

Says Stessa Cohen, a technology analyst at Gartner Research: "Everyone will benefit from accessible ATMs -- whether or not they're disabled." As it turns out, it's less costly for manufacturers to build speech capability into these stand-alone ATMs than the ones found at banks. Bank ATMs are continuously connected to far-away host processors (the computer network that receives customer requests and executes transactions). Less expensive, off-premise ATMs use cheaper dial-up connections to access a host processor for the minimum time needed to perform a transaction and then hang up.

"This self-sufficiency gives off-premise ATMs certain advantages when it comes to speech technology," says Bill Jackson, chief technology officer of Triton Systems, a unit of Dover Corp. Triton's goal is to build products that the blind can use, but the company believes talking technology also has mass appeal. It just rolled out the Triton 9700 series in consultation with the disabled community. These ATMs use text-to-speech technology and sell at $5,000 and upward.


  Current ATM talk technology does have some shortcomings. Most ATMs don't use text-based software, so all the information has to be prerecorded for each screen in what's called a .wav file, which works by digitizing recordings of real human voices. To "speak" a simple balance amount, for example, the .wav processor strings together prerecorded files for each digit of the number: "one," "thousand," "three," "hundred," "and," "forty," "two," "dollars."

Reliance on .wav-file technology requires that either the ATM or the host processor must maintain a complete set of recordings for every possible number, every transaction option, and every instruction on every screen shown on the ATM terminal -- a risky, expensive, and time-consuming process with a wide margin for errors because ATMs would have to be individually reconfigured.

Banks are more likely to embrace text-to-speech technology, the ABA's Feddis says. Text-to-speech "reads" any string of text. It doesn't have to be prerecorded, and it runs on common platforms such as Windows 2000.


  One event that may get the ball rolling on talking ATMs: The Access Board, an independent federal agency devoted to developing and enforcing accessibility standards for the disabled, is preparing to issue standards for electronic and information technology covered by section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments. Section 508 sets requirements on technology that's developed, procured, maintained, or used by federal agencies and employees. The NFB's Chong hopes that once these guidelines are published, banks will move more quickly toward equipping ATMs with voice technology.

However, what may really quicken the pulse of banks is the appeal of additional profits if they equip more machines with smart audio technology, thus enabling ATM transactions beyond cash withdrawals. Buying movie tickets or getting concert tickets at these improved machines, with their attendant transaction fees, will make this a more attractive proposition for banks.

With the lure of convenience and accessibility for customers and the potential for profits, talking ATMs may be the wave of the future -- and not just for the blind.

Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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