Coping with the Access Law

When you talk to bankers these days about ATMs, what you get is an earful about what many consider a potential compliance nightmare: the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The legislation, signed into law last year, requires banks and other businesses to make some of their facilities accessible to the disabled by late next month. And ATM modifications, which likely will run to thousands of dollars per machine, will be among the most expensive, highly visible conversion projects for banks.

The requirements are untimely, given the industry's profit squeeze. But because of the law's razor-sharp teeth - including penalties that start at $50,000 and the threat of lawsuits - many industry observers sound a warning to wafflers: Move first and ask questions later.

No Benefit in Delaying

"A lot of bankers have been sitting on their hands on this thing," said Anne D. Janson, manager of the American Bankers Association's task force on the law. "But adopting a wait-and-see approach is simply not an acceptable course of action."

In an effort to comply, many banks will build access ramps to ATM sites and acquire or retrofit teller machines with largetype display screens, braille keypads and voice synthesizers. Industrywide, the tab likely will run tens of millions of dollars.

But many, too, are reluctant to begin such costly efforts, partly because of doubts about precisely what is required by the law.

The legislation uses vague language and requires renovations only "where readily achievable" and when such construction does not place an "undue burden" on a business. The first deadline is Jan. 26. At that time, banks should have completed renovations that make their facilities generally accessible to disabled people.

Provisions Are Vague

The law offers no specifics regarding what percentage of a bank's facilities must be accessible, nor does it place any dollar amount on the undue burden provision. Most experts believe these details will be ironed out in court.

In an effort to point bankers in the right direction, the ABA task force held a symposium in October attended by bankers, ATM vendors and interest groups for the disabled. The task force concluded institutions that are unable to begin renovations by January should at least demonstrate that they have a detailed conversion schedule in place.

"Establishing and adhering to a specific schedule will greatly reduce an institution's exposure to suit and penalties," said Stephen A. Schutze, a first vice president at C&S/Sovran Corp. and a member of the ABA task force.

Interest-group representatives acknowledge the problems the law raises for the banking industry. They realize, too, that banks have been given relatively little time - six months from the time the regulations were passed to the first compliance date - to survey their sites and complete renovations.

Access Now a Right

But at the same time, they point out, equal access to public accommodations is now a legal right.

"We are entitled by law to have access to the same facilities that able-bodied people use, and, when necessary, we will invoke that law," said Oral Miller, executive director for the American Council for the Blind in Washington, D.C. "If that means lawsuits, then so be it."

Bankers who minimize the likelihood of such suits should reconsider: When disabled-access laws hit the books in Pennsylvania and California, some financial institutions found themselves facing court action.

Earlier this year, for example, Reading, Pa.-based Meridian Bancorp drew criticism from local advocacy groups, which charged that Meridian violated a state law mandating equal access to facilities for people in wheelchairs. In response to pending legal action from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Meridian unveiled a plan under which 100% of its ATMs will be accessible to wheelchair-bound patrons by 1997.

Fines Can Be Hefty

On the federal level, meanwhile, similar action is possible. Groups or individuals who believe an institution is not in compliance with the new law may file grievances with the Department of Justice. The agency is authorized to fine negligent institutions: $50,000 for the first offense and $100,000 for each subsequent violation.

Moreover, the regulations provide that groups may initiate civil suits to have facilities renovated. While such actions cannot result in punitive damages against a bank, they can prove to be costly from a public relations perspective. (Punitive damages, those awarded to a plaintiff beyond the actual loss, have no built-in upper limit).

"If we are going through the trouble of putting together a suit, I assure you we will not keep it under our hats," said a representative of one disabled people's group, who requested anonymity.

Some vendors already are moving to meet the expected increase in demand by banks for machines to serve the disabled. For example, a new line of ATMs manufactured by North Canton, Ohio-based Interbold includes braille-embossed keyboards.

Impact on Production

Marjolijn van der Velde, manager of retail banking at the Bank Administration Institute in Chicago, believes these features underscore a trend to make the ATMs more user-friendly for disabled persons.

"The applications of the future will be a direct result of new disability acts. The size of screens will increase to help those with impaired vision and machines that talk will help those that are blind.

"These are the types of applications that will come into vogue in the 1990s."

But one drawback for cost-conscious banks is that cheaper, used ATMs - the sales of which reached all-time highs earlier this year - generally do not comply with ADA's height and reach requirements to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Meanwhile, despite chronic foot dragging by some banks, some others are springing into action.

Following here and on page 16A are reviews of efforts at industry leaders CoreStates Financial Corp., BankAmerica Corp., and United Jersey Banks.

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