U.S. Bancorp has become the latest bank to install voice-guided automated teller machines for blind people.
The Minneapolis company on Aug. 21 started operating two of the ATMs at a new 24-hour banking center at Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Fourteen more are to be installed in the West and Midwest by yearend.
A few other banks - most notably Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup Inc. - put in this technology in some locations this year in response to lawsuits and other pressure from advocacy groups for the blind. In March, Bank of America Corp. promised a national rollout of the retrofitted machines, known as talking ATMs. In April, Wells Fargo and the California Council of the Blind unveiled 20 talking ATMs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
The technology is no longer exorbitantly expensive - U.S. Bank said it is spending about $3,000 per machine - and there is increasing pressure on all banks to make it available. Last year the Access Board, an independent federal agency responsible for accessibility guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Architectural Barriers Act, proposed revisions that would require banks and other ATM deployers to have voice-guided ATMs. These machines let users plug in headsets and receive oral instructions.
"This is not a project that will be bringing in additional revenue," said Carol Rossman, the group product manager for U.S. Bank network services. "It's just amazing to see so many of our customers so excited about it."
U.S. Bank and the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota have been working together for more than 10 years to make ATMs more accessible to the vision-impaired, said Joyce Scanlan, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Ms. Scanlan, who is legally blind, said that a decade ago she translated the instruction prompts on ATM screens into braille, and the bank posted them on its machines.
U.S. Bank selected equipment manufactured by Diebold Inc. of Canton, Ohio, which is also supplying ATM voice technology to Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
Roy Shirah, vice president of global planning and management at Diebold, said the technology was developed in the late 1970s but at first was limited: The voice could relay instructions on how to use an ATM but could not give customers information about transactions they had just made.
In 1997, PC technology was incorporated and sound files were linked with actual, real-time transactions. This enhancement meant users could ascertain their new balance on the spot, for example.
The modern talking ATMs also have a feature that let customers cut off the lengthy audio instructions if they know what to do next.
"Everyone likes the interruption feature," Mr. Shirah said. "Once visually impaired customers become familiar with the transaction process and voice prompts, they don't have to listen to the entire list of cues to proceed."
Carrie Klanderman, a product manager for U.S. Bank network services, said the extra $3,000 the bank is spending is small compared with the price of an ATM without the voice-guided feature, which she put at $20,000 to $30,000.
All customers can use the adapted machines, which are distinguishable only by a standard headphone jack. Even if the voice feature malfunctions, the ATM can still perform transactions, Ms. Klanderman said.
Plugging in a set of headphones activates the voice commands, which are read by a digitized, recorded audio voice.
"It's great to have this kind of equality and privacy," Ms. Scanlan said. "Before, I had to have a security guard or someone else alongside me at the ATM to read what was on the screen to me."
Ms. Scanlan said most people who are visually impaired carry headphones around with them. But just in case, U.S. Bank branches with voice-guided ATMs are keeping a small supply of headphones on hand.
Minnesota has about 12,000 legally blind people and 8,000 classified as visually impaired. Most in both categories live in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
U.S. Bank plans to install voice-guided ATMs in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas this month; Culver City, Calif.; Bend, Ore.; Chicago, and St. Paul next month; the Minnesota cities of Roseville, Lakeville, and Maplewood in November; and Thornton, Colo., in December.
Diebold and other companies are experimenting to improve the technology. "In the future, the need to push a button will go away," Mr. Shirah said. "All the customer will have to do is say commands and talk to the ATM. Commands would be limited to yes or no responses for customer security purposes."
He said this enhancement may be introduced by December 2001.