In a move that may portend new obligations for the banking industry, Bank of America Corp. on Wednesday became the first banking company to promise a national rollout of "talking" automated teller machines for blind people.
Bank lobbyists are busy fighting a proposed amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act that would require all bank and nonbank ATM deployers to offer talking ATMs wherever the machines are installed. The Consumer Bankers Association estimates that upgrades would cost an extra $10,000 per machine.
Bank of America has committed to install 2,500 of the expensive machines within three years in two of its largest markets - California and Florida. The move may mark a recognition that this technology will inevitably be a legal requirement.
Last year the prospect of a lawsuit from the California Council of the Blind prompted San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. to agree to a talking machine at each of 1,500 ATM sites in California by the end of 2003. Citigroup Inc., which also faced a legal challenge, agreed to test such technology at five sites in California and to negotiate a more permanent agreement after a six-month pilot.
Advocacy groups for blind people that have threatened to sue banks hail the Bank of America commitment as a defining moment in their effort to make talking ATMs a national standard.
Bank of America said it has made no further timing commitments, but said the 2,500 machines will be the prelude to widespread upgrades in which all its ATM locations will be outfitted with at least one such machine.
William Raymond, senior vice president and manager of Bank of America's ATM channel, said the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company wanted to be "a leader in terms of doing the right thing for our customers." He would not put the price tag on the initiative, but called it "significant even by Bank of America's standards."
Mr. Raymond said the move puts the bank "ahead of the curve," and predicted that most, if not all banks, will follow suit.
"This raises the bar for the industry," said Linda Dardarian, a lawyer for the council. "The fact that the largest bank in the country has committed to this technology should bring the other banks in line."
As part of the first comprehensive update of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has proposed revisions requiring that ATMs provide "audible instructions [through] a standard audio minijack, a telephone handset, a wireless transmission system, or another mechanism that is readily available to all customers." Transaction data from the receipt must also be receivable in voice format.
Banking trade groups are fighting the proposal. Nessa Feddis, senior federal counsel for the American Bankers Association, said the revisions propose the impossible: audible translation of what she calls "dynamic information," such as bank statement data for individual customers.
"No pilot that we're aware of or any technology today can comply with that," Ms. Feddis said. "Even if you could do it, it would be extremely expensive when there are very suitable alternatives" such as telephone banking, she said.
The Bank of America ATMs will have jacks that will deliver voice information privately to protect consumer security.
John Ward, chairman-elect of the Consumer Bankers Association, testified at an Arlington, Va., hearing on the revisions Monday, saying the additional cost "would, without question, inhibit the further deployment of ATMs and would probably result in a significant reduction in the number of ATMs already in place."
Opponents of the guidelines also argue that talking machines might extend long lines. Ms. Dardarian, the lawyer for the blind groups, said that banks "allow people the amount of time they need to buy stocks and search the Internet at ATMs," and thus cannot say "it's not OK to allow a person with vision impairments the amount of time that's necessary to get cash out of their bank accounts."