All of Meridian's ATM Locations To Have Wheelchair Access by '97

In one of the most far-reaching efforts to date by a U.S. bank to accommodate disabled persons, Meridian Bancorp. announced it would make all of its automated teller machine sites accessible to wheelchair users by 1997.

The move is the Reading, Pa., bank's voluntary response to a grievance filed with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. In late 1989, a disabled rights advocacy group complained that Meridian and several other Philadelphia area banks did not provide adequate facilities for their wheelchair-bound customers.

Hoping to avoid a lawsuit and possible fines for violating a Pennsylvania law prohibiting such discrimination, Meridian announced an agreement Thursday with the commission to gradually equip all its sites.

While the agreement, which gives Meridian more than five years to convert about 100 ATM sites, was struck to satisfy the requirements of a state law, bankers and representatives of special interest groups have commented that it serves as an example to banks that are struggling to meet the requirements of a federal measure, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Violating this act can result in fines of $50,000 for the first offense and $100,000 for subsequent offenses.

"If you are just sitting still, doing nothing at all, you are leaving yourself wide open for a juicy fine," said Stephen A. Schutze, a first vice president at C&S/Sovran Corp. and a member of the American Bankers Association's Retail Payment Services Committee.

Activists Welcome the Move

Meridian's action is viewed by disabled-rights activists and government officials as a positive step. "A written plan shows us that the bank has mapped out its plan to improve the situation," said Laura J. Treaster, director of information for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "As long as we see evidence that they are moving forward, we generally see less need for legal action."

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas of public accommodation. The act takes effect on Jan. 26, 1992, but despite the looming deadline, many bankers have been slow to begin altering their facilities.

Officials at the ABA said that the vague wording of the act has many bankers unsure of what they need to do to comply. To help clarify some of the more confusing issues, they are sponsoring a workshop in October.

But even if bankers are uncertain about the specific actions to be taken, the ABA and other industry officials are stressing that each institution must at least begin formulating plans.

By the standards of the federal rules, the steps that Meridian has taken to accommodate wheelchair-bound customers are extraordinary. Even for a large institution, the estimated $100,000 that Meridian will spend probably exceeds what the law requires, observers said. Meridian officials would not comment on the total cost of renovation.

In addition to requiring that ATMs and other bank facilities be accessible to wheelchair-bound customers, the law also requires banks to accommodate people with hearing and vision impairments, "where readily achievable."

And even bankers that have taken steps to comply with the law have focused mainly on their ATM sites. Industry watchers warn that the act applies to all areas of a bank's facilities, including branches.

Easing Access

Some of the banks providing ATM access to the disabled ATM sites accessible

Meridian Bancorp.

Reading, Pa. 100%(*)

Bank South

Atlanta 42%

Bank of America

San Francisco 50%

BayBanks

Boston 2% (*)By 1997

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