Two leading manufacturers of automated teller machines are testing new technology that will allow blind or visually impaired customers to conduct transactions.

It may help financial institutions comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Diebold Inc., Canton, Ohio, and AT&T Global Information Solutions, Dayton, Ohio, previewed ATMs fitted with closeproximity radio systems at the recent Bank Administration Institute's retail delivery systems conference in Phoenix.

Although AT&T has not yet placed any of the devices in a live test site, a retrofitted Diebold ATM is installed at the St. Louis Telephone Employees Credit Union.

"We see this as an opportunity to extend the ATM to people with visual impairments, which admittedly is a small segment of our market, and to comply with ADA," said Charles Waalkes, president of the credit union.

"Our ATMs are connected to national and regional networks, so the potential target group who wants to use this machine is quite large," he added.

The radio system, manufactured by Sound Advice Inc. and known by the same name, works with a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter, located within the body of the ATM, sends out a signal in a four-foot range, with a notice that an ATM is close by.

A blind or visually impaired customer, who has been supplied with a receiver, picks up the signal, and knows to approach the machine.

The transmitter then sends out a signal describing the unit, and instructs the customer where to insert the ATM card. At that point, the transmitter simply vocalizes all of the text printed on the screen, talking the customer through each transaction.

Blind consumers who have tried the system call it an improvement over keys inlaid with braille instructions.

"Braille is not accessible because the screen prompts are not braille," said Frank Vance, director of rehabilitation services at Arizona Center for the Blind, in Phoenix.

"Having the voice interface through Sound Advice makes it fully accessible," added Mr. Vance, who lost his sight as a teenager. "I think this is a very exciting development."

Adding the Sound Advice capability to a new ATM costs "very little" said Marie Davis, president of Sound Advice, St. Louis. To retrofit an existing ATM, she said, the cost would be less than $1,000.

Sound Advice is busy selling the concept to other businesses besides banks, as a way to extend the utility of the handheld receiver.

For example, said Ms. Davis, transmitters have been installed at the Lewis & Clark Center in St. Louis, where descriptions of museum exhibits are vocalized for the visually impaired visitor.

Ms. Davis says there is potential for installation of the devices in restaurants, to vocalize the menu; in malls, to identify stores; or in office buildings to indicate exits, restrooms, or even specific offices.

A number of banks, including Citicorp, are exploring the Sound Advice idea, although no contracts have yet been signed.

"I would use this if it was available in Phoenix, and I know lots of others who would use it," said Mr. Vance. "We'd be happy to work with banks on pilots, or in any other way advance the development and deployment of this tool."

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