Regulators plan to issue guidelines by yearend on how banks must provide ATM accommodation for the blind, and banks are already trying to figure out the best ways to comply.
The guidelines - which could eventually become rules - will probably require that some automated teller machines be outfitted with phones or earphones, a concept several larger banks are now experimenting with.
For years advocacy groups for the blind have been pressuring some large banks with lawsuits. In response Bank of America Corp., U.S. Bancorp (which is not being sued), Wells Fargo & Co., and Citigroup Inc. have begun installing talking ATMs, which provide recorded voice instruction through headphones plugged into the machines.
Another banking company, PNC Financial Services Group Inc., has responded with a different solution: cellular phones that connect blind people to special customer service representatives who will read aloud the information on their screens.
Last Friday, the American Bankers Association hosted discussions between industry officials and advocates for the blind about the best way to solve the problem, and a second meeting is being planned for this spring. "We got a lot of things out on the table," said Paul Schroeder, vice president government relations at the American Foundation for the Blind. But, he said, "there are many things left to be settled."
For one thing, there is no agreement about what equipment or system should be made standard. Nor have the two sides agreed how many ATMs a bank must make accessible to the blind. So far, the banks that have been doing the conversions have been outfitting one machine per location.
While PNC's idea of giving cell-phone handsets to its blind customers on a pilot basis may sound cheaper than retrofitting dozens or even hundreds of ATMs, it may not turn out to be so efficient. According to the plan mapped out by PNC and some blind litigants, trained customer service people will need to be on call around the clock to guide blind people in the use of the bank's ATMs.
One of the advocates involved in the negotiations with PNC, Curtis Chong, expressed doubt about the settlement, which is subject to review after a trial period.
"Voice-guided ATMs are the only way to make ATMs accessible to the blind," said Mr. Chong, who is director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind. "I believe that the use of cell phones is a solution which gives the appearance that one is trying to sidestep voice-guided ATMs."
The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, an independent federal agency that issues guidelines for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, proposed in November 1999 to make ATMs more accessible by requiring they connect to talking devices, such as headphones or telephone handsets. The board anticipates that its proposal will be finalized by yearend, then adopted by the Justice Department, which historically issues legal standards consistent with the board's guidelines.
Industry participants in the talks hosted by the ABA want the final rule to be more detailed to make compliance requirements clearer and minimize legal concerns.
"If we can reach clarity there will be progress," said Nessa Feddis, an ABA senior federal counsel of government relations and regulatory and trust affairs. "It's not a simple answer. The idea is to get something that is workable and then move it ahead. It gives a little more certainty to the ATM owner about what exactly they have to do."
But bankers face close scrutiny from advocates for the blind, who say they envision retrofitted ATMs as symbols of sensitivity to the blind that are as powerful as ramps for wheelchair users.
"ATMs are ubiquitous," said Daniel F. Goldstein, an attorney with Brown, Goldstein & Levy of Baltimore who represents the National Federation of the Blind. "When you start seeing earphone jacks at ATMs, it will be the kind of universal symbol we need."
PNC and five of its visually impaired customers will begin a 30-day trial of the cell phone system in mid-February, said Patrick McMahon, a PNC spokesman.
"Everyone expects the test to be successful," Mr. McMahon said. "It's just a question of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the process, and then moving to the larger pilot phase."
Mr. McMahon said the advantages of cell phone use over talking ATMs are "the human element" and two-way communication.
But Mr. Chong of the National Federation for the Blind expressed doubts. "In the long run, they would have to abandon the idea because it really isn't that cost-effective when you need to have a 24-hour specially trained phone banking staff," he said. Talking ATMs represent a one-time cost, and the cell-phone solution would seem to incur permanent costs, said Judy Sanders, the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
Ms. Sanders, who has been using the two talking ATMs that U.S. Bancorp installed last summer, said it was hard for her to imagine that the cell phone system would work, but "what's important is that it's well-intended and they're trying to make it work," she said.
The ABA says it hopes its dialogue with representatives for the blind will bring about proposals that are inexpensive and easy for banks to implement.
"The idea is that future products will be designed with blind users in mind, so that you don't have to go back to retrofit, which is much more expensive," said Ms. Feddis, of the ABA.
Mr. Chong and Ms. Sanders said they suspect that the headset type of solution that U.S. Bancorp is using will prevail over PNC's cell-phone idea. Cell phones can get lost or malfunction, they said, and could make customers more vulnerable to robbery.
Mr. Chong said, "You're a target if you have a cell phone on the street rather than a pair of cheap earphones, especially if it's 10 o'clock at night."