Last December, on the eve of the first compliance deadline, the Americans with Disabilities Act seemed a potential nightmare for banks - especially the provisions relating to automated teller machines.

"Initially there was a flurry of activity to understand what the guidelines were all about," said Bruce Flynn, manager of disability management services for Wells Fargo Bank, San Francisco.

Today, banks are working hard to ensure that their ATMs are accessible to the handicapped and comply with the law. But troubles remain.

Given the somewhat vague language of the ADA guidelines, banks are understandably nervous about compliance.

"The requirement doesn't really tell you what to do when, so you are subject to being sued," said James S. Walker, group vice president in charge of self-service banking activities for PNC Financial Corp., Pittsburgh.

Role for Advocacy Groups

The fear of legal action has created a climate in which banks are more likely to seek the advice of advocacy organizations to help them decide how to comply with the law.

A number of companies have joined forces to deal with ADA compliance issues. The Bay Area ADA Industry Advisory Group is an informal network of human resources and facilities people from large organizations who meet once a month to exchange information. A similar group has been organized in New England.

As far as ATMs are concerned, however, some feel the responsibility for compliance should be shared.

"I'd like to see manufacturers be required to certify that their machines are accessible to the disabled, and provide guidelines for installation," said Mr. Walker. "That would take it out of the hands of the banks."

Some Retrofitting Needed

But since the industry's ATM networks include thousands of machines that are not yet replacement candidates, banks are grappling with how to retrofit their machines to comply with the ADA.

Machine height is the biggest difficulty in making ATMS accessible to people in wheelchairs. Machines that are installed through a wall can be lowered relatively easily and inexpensively.

Other height adjustments are more complicated and costly. Suntrust is installing "special access fascia" on its Diebold Inc. machines, replacing the fronts with lower components that can be reached by both wheelchairbound and ambulatory people, said John Levinson, manager of electronic banking at Sun Trust Service Corp., the Orlando, Fla.-based data processing company for Atlanta-based Sun Trust Banks Inc. The modification costs $2,000 to $3,000 per machine.

Enhancing Visibility

To make ATMs accessible to the visually impaired, some banks are using various "screen enhancements" such as larger and brighter letters, icons instead of words for instructions, and braille on keypads and other ATM components.

Besides adding some braille to its machines, PNC is developing a brochure in braille that explains how to use the different types of ATMS it operates.

The use of braille, however, is less than ideal since only about one out of 10 visually handicapped people can read it. Voice-guidance equipment, still in the testing stage, may provide better access once the wrinkles are ironed out, such as security considerations and how to switch the voice mechanism off for customers who don't need it.

Virtually all banks have done an inventory of their machines and have a written plan to phase in compliance within two years.

But not all banks have hopped on the ADA bandwagon. Central Fidelity Bank in Richmond preferred to hold back and see how the wording of the act would be interpreted.

"Our biggest issue was wheelchair access," said Jane R. Stafford, vice president and deputy corporate counsel.

Based on the original standards, 70% of her bank's machines would not meet guidelines for both front and side access.

"So we waited until new interpretation of the act six weeks ago indicated that front or side access to ATMs would be required - but not both. At last count, 90% of our machines are already in compliance," said Ms. Stafford.

It's anybody's guess whether banks would have considered handicapped access to ATMs a priority without being prodded by the law. What is certain, however, is that they are grabbing the opportunity to reach a new market.

Wells Fargo, for example, is preparing a brochure that outlines services aimed at meeting the needs of disabled customers.

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