BayBanks Cautious on ATM Access

It's a banking nightmare:

A federal law is passed requiring substantial changes to an electronic delivery mechanism that has been a bread-and-butter business.

Worse yet, with a major compliance deadline approaching, the bank has little idea of what the law specifically requires.

Boston-based BayBanks said it finds itself in this predicament with respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that banks and other businesses make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities by Jan. 26, 1992.

BayBanks, with $9.9 billion in assets, is one of the nation's heavy hitters in retail banking, thanks in no small part to its extensive network of automated teller machines. With more than 1,000 ATMs throughout New England, the bank has established its green logo in the region as the banking equivalent of McDonald's golden arches.

An ATM Leader

For many institutions in the Northeast and across the country, BayBanks is a role model for ATM marketing.

"They are synonymous with ATMs," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst in Portland, Maine, with Boston's Tucker, Anthony Inc. "They lead and others follow."

Because of that leadership, many observers express surprise that the bank has been moving slowly to comply with the disabilities act.

|Where Readily Achievable'

The law requires that by Jan. 26, bank facilities including ATM sites provide access "where readily achievable" for the wheelchair-bound and people with visual and hearing impairments.

Many bankers have complained that law does not define "readily achievable."

In addition, all sites constructed after Jan. 26, 1993, must be accessible to the disabled.

Despite the proximity of the deadline, only nine of BayBank's more than 600 sites have ATMs that have been lowered for customers in wheelchairs. And just 31 sites have been equipped with braille instructions.

Others More Advanced

By contrast, most of the major ATM players in the country, including BankAmerica Corp., San Francisco, and CoreStates Financial Corp., Philadelphia, have converted over 50% of their ATM sites.

The bank is pilot-testing ATMs for disabled people, said Lindsey C. Lawrence, president of BayBanks System Inc. The company would do the same "with any other program we would implement on a large scale," she said. "It is not in our best interest or the disabled customer's to make these renovations before we know exactly what we're doing."

On the positive side, BayBanks has excelled in complying with one of the act's provisions. All of the bank's ATM sites are equipped with phones linked to customer service representatives who are trained to guide visually impaired customers in using the ATMs.

But many observers have commented that this is not enough. According to the representatives of the National Center for Disabled Services, Albertson, N.Y., blind people are only a fraction of the disabled customers who need special accommodations. A much larger number of wheelchair-bound people are likely to use the machines, so making ATMs lower should rank as a first priority.

"It's getting to the point where bankers are going to have to do more than talk," said Charles Raphael, a first vice president at the National Bank of Detroit and a member of the retail payments service committee of the American Bankers Association.

But many financial institutions, including BayBanks, said most banks will probably fail to meet some January 1992 requirements.

Aside from the time it takes to actually make the renovations, it may take up to six months to get the ball rolling financially. "It's no piece of cake for us to come up with an unexpected million or two in the middle of a fiscal year," said one banker.

Proof of Good Will

The American Bankers Association and the Bank Administration Institute, Rolling Meadows, Ill., recommend that bankers at least compose conversion schedules as evidence they are not ignoring the act.

BayBanks is heeding that advice. Ms. Lawrence said the bank has sent out two teams of technicians to investigate the feasibility of certain renovations, and assess their costs.

While the bank will not have many renovations done by January, it will by that time have drawn up a plan and set aside funds in the annual budget to purchase equipment and make alterations, such as constructing ramps and lowering ATMs.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.