Nearly two years after the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect, the majority of automated teller machines in the United States are still not easily accessible by people with disabilities, according to industry surveys.

The act requires ATMs to accommodate people with disabilities wherever such accommodations are "readily achievable" and do not place an "undue burden" on a financial institution.

The wording of the law, which took effect on Jan. 26, 1992, has allowed many institutions to legitimately put off making expensive renovations to ATM sites.

Thus, while many institutions believe they are in full compliance with the ADA, the law as it applies to ATMs has not so far achieved its goal of giving equal access to people in wheelchairs and to those with visual and auditory impairments.

|Vast Majority' Inaccessible

"I would say that vast majority of the ATMs in the U.S. are not easily accessible [to people with disabilities]," said Stephen A. Schutze, director of corporate resources for the disabled at NationsBank Corp., and a member of the American Bankers Association's ADA task force.

Numbers from the ABA and Speer & Associates support Mr. Schutze's contention.

The ABA's most recent retail operations and automation survey found that 48% of ATMs at banks with $1 billion or more in assets were accessible to people in wheelchairs. The $1 billion-plus group is significant in that they operate more than 90% of the nation's ATMs, experts said.

Few Lawsuits Brought

Put in different terms, over 35% of the 102 institutions participating in Speer & Associates 1993 Proprietary EFT Program Survey reported that their ATMs were not accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Despite these figures, observers say there have been few ADA-related lawsuits brought against banks. "We're pretty active in this area, and I have not heard of any official complaints" brought against banks, said Joseph S. Pendleton 3d, senior vice president at Meridian Bancorp, based in Reading, Pa.

Mr. Pendleton, whose bank settled a complaint by agreeing to make all its ATMs wheelchair accessible by 1997, said the govemment is unlikely to demand that a bank upgrade its accommodations for disabled people unless a grievance is filed.

However, if the government does get involved, it could be costly for a bank. Fines for noncompliance start at $50,000.

Braille Is of Limited Help

Wheelchair access, while important, is not the only concern of the law. People with visual and auditory impairments must also have easy access.

Over 95% of the Speer report respondents indicated they have installed some sort of aid for customers with visual impairments. However, the report said most of these aids consist of ATM instructions written in braille, which only a small percentage of visually impaired people can read.

Only 21% of institutions in the Speer survey have made software modifications that would increase the size of the words displayed on screens.

Citicorp has been particularly innovative in meeting the needs of visually impaired ATM users. The touch-sensitive screens on all of the bank's 1,800 ATMs can be broken down into quadrants that are easily usable by those who cannot see the screen.

The reason that all banks have not followed the lead of Citicorp and Meridian is simple: ADA renovations are expensive.

According to Speer & Associates, upgrading ATM locations costs an average of $3,400 per site: "The upgrades that have had the greatest financial impact on respondents are structural changes to existing facilities and lowering ATMs for the new height and reach requirements."

Under the height and reach requirements, the highest operable part on an ATM must be no higher than 54 inches if a person in a wheelchair can pull along-side the terminal. The maximum height is 48 inches if the wheelchair cannot be maneuvered for parallel access.

As was indicated above, the law exempts banks from making renovations if doing so would create an "undue burden." However, any newly installed ATMs are expected to be in full compliance with the law.

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.