ATM-Access Rule Remains Hazy

New regulations mandating increased access for the disabled will not force banks to overhaul their ATM fleets, but ambiguities could throw the whole effort into court, bankers and lawyers said.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed last year - prohibiting discrimination against disabled people in places of public accommodation - bankers initially feared it would require widespread renovations to their automated teller machine sites.

But, thanks in part to a cooperative effort by bankers, ATM vendors, groups representing the disabled, and the Justice Department, it now appears that large-scale retrofitting of the automated banking machines will not be required under the law.

However, the regulations released last week unexpectedly included a general rule requiring that ATMs be outfitted so they can be used by the visually impaired. The vague wording of that rule, coupled with the hazy stipulation that all renovations should be done "where readily achievable" has many bankers concerned about potential lawsuits.

Uncertainty Remains

"We had hoped that the regulations would clear up some of the ambiguities in the act, but in a lot of ways that has not happened," said Nessa Eileen Feddis, senior federal counsel at the American Bankers Association in Washington. "I'm afraid that a lot of this is going to be decided in court."

In addition to requiring that existing sites be renovated by January 1992 where "readily achievable," all ATMs installed after Jan. 26, 1993, must also be in compliance with the act as long as this mandate does not create an "undue burden."

Bankers emphasize that they are eager to comply with the spirit of the regulations, but it is not yet clear what the terms "readily achievable" and "undue burden" will translate into in overall operating costs.

Bankers are particularly worried about what will be required of them to accommodate customers with visual impairments.

A Matter of Interpretation

"The rules addressing visually impaired users leave a lot to interpretation, and that can be both good and bad," said Stephen A. Schutze, first vice president at Richmond-based C&S/Sovran Corp. "The most I can say is that the work on this issue has not really begun yet."

Ideally, the best aid for a visually impaired ATM user is a machine that can issue synthesized-voice prompts and react to simple replies from the user. For example, the ATM would ask, "Do you want another transaction?" and the user could speak a yes or no response.

However, such technology is only in the infant stages of development at the major ATM vendors, and when it is available, bankers feel it might be too expensive to justify widespread installation.

A primitive version of this software - which has the power to issue audio prompts only - is available for about $1,000 per machine from NCR Corp., Dayton, Ohio, and InterBold, North Canton, Ohio, and others.

Improvements for the Blind

Groups representing the visually impaired have applauded bankers' efforts to accommodate their members, but they emphasize that there is still far to go. Many banks features braille instructions and other aids to blind and visually impaired customers, but industry sources said much work remains.

"We are pleased with the general activity so far, but we are concerned that people with visual impairments will get left behind as the machines get more complex," said Oral O. Miller, executive director for the American Council of the Blind in Washington. "As far as the future goes, by their actions we shall know them."

Among the improvements to ATMs that he views as readily achievable, Mr. Miller suggested screens with stronger visual contrast and the installation of special phones at the ATM sites that blind people can use to get quick access to account information.

To explore these and other issues surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act, the American Bankers Association will sponsor a workshop on Oct. 28 in Washington.

"While some things surrounding the act are still sort of foggy, this much is clear: The time to start gearing up is now," said Ms. Feddis of the ABA.

PHOTO : Stricter Rules for ATM Access Source: U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board

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