Under pressure from advocacy groups for the blind, some banks are preparing their automated teller machines to talk.
The advocates for the visually impaired argue that the ability to deliver instructions by voice should become standard with ATMs.
Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public facilities to accommodate people with various handicaps, organizations for the blind have filed lawsuits against some banks and are threatening more.
The prospect of a lawsuit by the California Council of the Blind prompted Wells Fargo & Co. to agree in June to install a talking machine at each of 1,500 ATM sites in California by the end of 2003.
Citibank has similarly agreed to test such technology at five sites in California. After a six-month pilot test starting Oct. 1, the bank is contractually obliged to try to negotiate a more permanent arrangement.
Linda M. Dardarian, a lawyer for the California Council of the Blind, said other institutions should heed these examples.
"Any other bank would be wise to adopt this type of accommodation," she said. "The more resistant they are to it, the less reasonable they are going to appear, and the more likely they are to be sued."
Mellon Bank Corp. and PNC Bank Corp., both of Pittsburgh, are being sued separately by the Disabilities Law Project, a public interest firm in Philadelphia. ATM voice technology has been available for a few years, says the complaint, so neither company has an excuse not to offer it.
Talking ATMs use automated digital voice system instructions to guide cardholders through transactions.
Customers use headphones for privacy and security, and a voice tells them which buttons to press.
Two top ATM makers, Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, and NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, say they introduced the technology in 1997 but demand has been minimal until recently.
Diebold and NCR executives would not say how much the equipment costs. Rob Evans, director of marketing at NCR, said expenses are difficult to calculate. Installing the hardware is easy, but developing the software to accommodate differences in procedures and configurations from bank to bank is not.
NCR designed talking terminals for Royal Bank of Canada in 1997. But the industry lacks a "cookie-cutter solution" that will meet everyone's needs, Mr. Evans said.
A case in point is Citigroup's Citibank subsidiary, which designed its own ATMs with touch screens and no conventional key pads for entering personal identification numbers, cash-amount requests, or other commands. The Citibank PIN pad, for example, is a "virtual" one that pops up on the screen.
NCR and Diebold are both working with Wells Fargo. The California council, an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, said the San Francisco banking company is first in the nation to make a statewide commitment.
"I'm kind of excited about the project," said Terry E. Zink, a senior vice president who oversees Wells' ATM department. ATMs are "a really convenient channel," he said, and "this is going to be opening it up to a lot of people."
Nine million people in the United States are legally blind, and one million more are totally blind, said Charles H. Crawford, executive director of the American Council of the Blind in Washington. In California, 500,000 adults are severely visually impaired, Ms. Dardarian said.
The California council said it approached Wells and Citibank-which has 74 branches in the state-four years ago to seek an accommodation. The council worked with several law firms, four blind people, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund of Berkeley. Ms. Dardarian said the coalition also is taking aim at other large banks.
Mr. Zink said Wells had been working on voice-guided ATMs for six or seven years before it was approached by advocacy groups. A pilot program is to begin next spring at 20 high-traffic sites in and around San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. By September 2000, 80 to 100 talking ATMs are scheduled to be up and running.
In deference to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, most banks' ATMs have braille on their keypads. Ms. Dardarian said only 10% to 15% of blind people are trained to read braille.
Kathy Martinez, a Wells Fargo customer who can distinguish only between light and dark, said in a telephone interview that ATMs have gotten harder for blind people to use.
With older ATMs, "it was possible to very safely feel the keypad, so you could memorize the steps for withdrawal," said Ms. Martinez, a resident of Albany, Calif., who has been working with Wells on its talking ATM initiative.
Ms. Martinez said ATMs are a great convenience but enhancements to the machines-such as additional language options and postage-stamp dispensing- have changed the screen patterns she learned.
Five years after the disabilities law was enacted, "when I saw that their new machines were being deployed and they were less accessible, I just thought, 'This is nuts,'" Ms. Martinez said.
Banks say they have always made good-faith efforts to serve customers with disabilities. The Pennsylvania lawsuits and events in California seem to have heightened interest in talking ATMs.
In the last six months Diebold has fielded "dozens of serious inquiries" about audio capabilities, said Roy Shirah, senior director of product planning and management. Banks are asking for price quotes and proposals, he said.
Thomas H. Earle, a Disabilities Law Project attorney working on the Mellon suit, said talking ATMs become more needed as states begin to distribute welfare benefits and food stamps electronically. In Pennsylvania some electronic benefits recipients are members of a pension fund program for the blind, he said.
Mr. Earle, who represents the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania and some individual plaintiffs, said advocates for the blind approached the American Bankers Association, Mellon, PNC, and other banking companies more than a year ago to discuss how blind people could get their benefits at banking terminals.
"The issues that we raised then about this problem were largely dismissed," prompting the group to sue, Mr. Earle said.
A spokesman for Mellon said the company is "in full compliance" with the disabilities law and has "a history of providing braille and large-print statements." A spokesman for PNC declined to comment.
There is some disagreement over whether the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically requires talking ATMs. The technology was not available when the legislation was written.
The ADA Accessibility Guidelines, published in 1993 by the Architectural and Transportational Barriers Compliance Board in Washington, required that ATMs have various height and reach specifications for wheelchairs. It stated that "instructions and all information for use shall be made accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments."
Patricia Freedman, a lawyer and director of the Pike Institute for Law and Disability at Boston University School of Law, said the law mandates voice technology, though the guidelines do not specify it.
As the population ages, voice technology could be useful for a lot of people, Ms. Freedman said. "I put it in the category of curb cuts-everybody benefits."
Even talking ATMs are inadequate to serve people who are both blind and deaf, said Mr. Evans of NCR.
The technology is still evolving. NCR and Diebold can offer a version that reads an account balance to a customer. Initially, Citibank will offer that service, but Wells will not.
"Long-term, that's clearly a direction we want to go," Mr. Zink said.
The first Wells Fargo talking ATMs, now in laboratory testing, will prompt customers through the making of deposits, cash withdrawals, funds transfers, and stamp purchases. Blind or low-vision customers will plug an earphone into a jack at the ATM. A voice will give very literal instructions, telling the user, for example, to push the third button from the right-hand corner for a withdrawal.
"We have had to make sure every keyboard is the same," Mr. Zink said. He predicted that talking ATMs would eventually be standard at Wells.
Citibank's testing will take place at three branches in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles. Toward the end of the test, the contract allows 60 days in which to negotiate a plan for nationwide rollout of talking ATMs.
Catherine Skivers, president of the California Council of the Blind, said she is "optimistic that the pilot test will result in an agreement for talking ATMs at Citibank locations nationwide."
If an agreement cannot be reached, however, the council is prepared to sue Citibank, said Ms. Dardarian, the council's lawyer.
Citibank's ATMs will use a talking screen reader, which the bank describes as "technology that speaks audibly about what the sighted user sees on the screen," to guide customers through transactions. The bank said it does the same in its Direct Access on-line banking program.
"Adapting screen-reader technology to ATMs is a logical evolution in our effort to work with visually impaired customers," said Edward Horowitz, senior corporate officer and head Citigroup's e-Citi division, in a prepared statement.
Ms. Dardarian said Citibank has braille stickers in various places, including the slots used for dipping ATM cards and inserting deposit envelopes.
A large-print version of Citibank's screen instructions can be obtained by tapping on the glass twice, but it does not help people who are completely blind, Ms. Dardarian said.
Michael A. Strada, president of Electronic Commerce Strategies Inc., a consulting firm in Atlanta, said the banking industry is likely to embrace talking ATMs.
Wells Fargo is "a step ahead," but "banks are notorious for following," Mr. Strada said. "Once one person offers something, everybody else offers it."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - First Union Corp. has begun offering MCI Worldcom prepaid calling vouchers at 2,900 ATMs.
The vouchers are available in 30-minute or 60-minute denominations and can be used for both domestic and international calls.
First Union and MCI Worldcom say their deal marks the largest deployment of ATM-based, prepaid calling cards and the first large-scale rollout by a major regional bank.
First Union ATM users can purchase the prepaid calling time and have the cost deducted from their account. The ATM receipt serves as a prepaid calling card, with the toll-free access number and personal identification number needed to place a telephone call printed on the receipt. On-screen prompts guide customers through the purchase.
Buyers are also provided with a receipt with dialing instructions for domestic or international calls.
"We live in a world driven by speed and convenience, and offering MCI Worldcom prepaid calling is a natural extension of our ATM delivery channel to put the right products in consumers' hands," said Al Sale, the president and CEO of First Union ATM Solutions Inc.