Committing to make all of its ATMs voice operated, Diebold is the first manufacturer to accommodate the demands of a stubbornly determined lobby for persons with disabilities.

Late last year, Diebold Inc.-the subject of one of several lawsuits alleging discrimination against the blind-introduced its latest voice operated ATM. Moreover, it promised to add voice capabilities to all of its automated teller machines, resulting in the suit against it being dropped.

There is a feeling among those in the ATM industry that federal legislation ultimately will mandate that ATMs be voice operable (a bill is before committee).

"Although ATM keypads have Braille instructions they don't say what is on the screen, meaning the blind have even had to give their PINs to strangers," a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind, in Baltimore, told BTN.

Advocates for the blind contend ATM manufacturers and deployers, particularly banks, are dragging their feet to offer machines that provide audible instructions for screen-menu prompts. Now, using a carrot-and-stick approach, they appear to be making some headway.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) of the District of Columbia filed two lawsuits, one against North Canton, OH- based Diebold and Camp Hill, PA-based Rite Aid Corp., and the other against Frederick, MD-based Chevy Chase Bank. The suits charge the defendants with violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 for not making their ATMs accessible to blind individuals.

Those lawsuits followed another filed in 1999 by the federation's Baltimore chapter against Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank and other financial institutions.

The NFB and other groups also have proposed requiring ATMs to be equipped with voice-enabled technology. The U.S. Dept. of Justice's Architectural Committee, which oversees ADA compliance issues, is considering adoption of such a requirement with objections by ATM industry leaders.

It remains unclear whether these actions will force the deployment of voice-enabled ATMs. Diebold and its chief competitor NCR Corp. are among those not waiting to find out.

Diebold, for example, hopes to turn what could have been a costly lawsuit into a marketing opportunity. Company officials say they want to be on the ground floor of a growing market for ATMs that offer voice-guided functions as banks get edgy over possible ADA violations. "We have committed to bringing the voice-guidance technology across our product line," says Alan Looney, Diebold director of product planning and management.

The NFB and Diebold will cooperate to develop a more cost-effective way to upgrade Diebold's CashSource Plus cash dispensers and high-end models for use by individuals who cannot read ATM screens. Diebold's CSP 200 models can be converted to offer voice-guided instructions, but improvements will be made to offer upgrades without an ATM owner having to buy additional software and hardware.

Add-on and programming costs have prevented voice-guided ATMs from being widely deployed. Converting ATMs to offer voice technology, say industry sources, would carry prohibitive costs of up to $10,000 per machine and force thousands of ATM operators to replace or remove machines.

The federation claims the conversion costs are much less. But the organization hopes working with companies such as Diebold, the nation's largest ATM manufacturer, instead of suing them will lead to less costly conversions and quicker deployments of voice-guided devices, says Curtis Chong, the federation's director of technology.

Diebold is hoping financial institutions buy voice-guided ATMs in increasing numbers as pressure mounts to offer them, and the federation plans to help Diebold to promote the machines. "We are going to help Diebold expand their franchising program," says Chong. "We want banks to fix the problem without everybody having to spend so much money to do it."

NCR of Dayton, OH, also foresees an inevitable preference by banks for ATMs that are voice-enabled if the cost is reasonable. "There will be very few machines made without this technology in the near future," says Rob Evans, NCR manager of self-service systems. Voice-enabling ATMs adds about $1,000 to the cost of an ATM, excluding the software package to run the function, he says.

Advocates for the blind, through legal and public relations efforts, already are making an impact. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. has installed about 100 NCR voice-guided ATMs, while Mellon Bank has installed 10 NCR voice-guided machines and plans to install more.

There is a feeling that the federal government, through agencies that regulate compliance with the ADA law, will eventually approve the so-called Rule 707, which is pending before the Architectural Committee and requires ATMs to comply with the ADA by using voice technology.

Lawsuits also are prompting banks to take a serious look at buying voice-enabled ATMs. "All the movement right now is in direct response to a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit," he says.

An earlier version of this story ran in ATM&Debit News, a BTN affiliate of which David Gosnell is

senior editor. Orla O'Sullivan contributed to this version.

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.