Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Banks, credit unions, independent ATM operators hustle to meet March 2012 deadline to make 400,000 ATM machines nationally accessible to visually impaired people

From  the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska:

Banks, credit unions and independent ATM operators are hustling to meet a March 2012 deadline to make their machines — more than 400,000 nationally, 3,400 in Nebraska and about 2,000 in Iowa — accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.

New rules, six years in the making under the Americans with Disabilities Act, mean millions of dollars spent on new or upgraded machines. They also mean the ubiquitous automated teller machines that spit out cash will be accessible to thousands more people who have problems seeing the buttons and screens.

"It allows the blind to visually impaired person to be able to enter all their card numbers and information without having the assistance of somebody else," said Robert Spangler of Vinton, Iowa, president of the Iowa Council of the United Blind. "It's a privacy issue. How would you like to drive up to an ATM and give somebody the information to do it for you? What's good for one is good for all of us."

Those with partial sight may be able to see parts of an ATM, he said, "but your field of vision may be reduced or it takes you a lot longer to read the stuff that's on the screen."

Arguments over the need for the federal accessibility standards are long over, although until February of this year some banks thought the new rules might not apply to their existing machines.

But they do, and now banks and others that offer the automated cash dispensers are buying conversion kits, costing $1,000 to $4,000 each, or new machines, which range from $2,000 for a stripped-down, cash-only model to nearly $60,000 for one that scans checks, dispenses stamps and performs other functions.

"We're replacing a lot of machines," said Mark Hesser, president of Pinnacle Bank of Omaha. His budget for upgrading or replacing the bank's 120 ATMs approaches $1 million. "It's a significant outlay, but it also allows us to upgrade many of our locations with the newest in ATM technologies."

Hesser said he doesn't know how many customers will benefit from the improved machines, but at least one downtown Lincoln ATM has a high number of visually impaired users. Many of those machines have met the new standards for some time, he said, and many of the old machines would have been replaced in a year or so anyway.

Among those who welcome the new machines is Amy Buresh of Lincoln, president of the Nebraska chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. She's a Pinnacle Bank customer, and when she needs cash, she requires assistance to use an ATM or has to go to a teller during banking hours.

"We're all busy, and we want to have the same access as everybody else," she said.

She estimated that 25,000 Nebraskans are legally blind and could benefit from the accessible machines. She has tried out demonstration models, she said, and "those machines do work very well. It's liberating."

First National Bank of Omaha is on track to have its 300 ATMs in compliance with the rule, although the audio function so far is activated on "only a handful," said Senior Vice President Rolland Johannsen.

It's been a dozen years since Wells Fargo & Co. installed what were believed to be the first "talking ATMs" in California. Costs of the voice-capable machine have declined steadily, making them more affordable.

"I appreciate any functionality that is tactilely friendly," said Omahan Mark Bulger, whose "residual vision" lets him operate ATM machines, but not easily. "It's not just a few blind people anymore. There's a generation of seniors with age-related vision problems."

Nationally, some bankers argued that they shouldn't have to replace machines that met earlier requirements for wheelchair access and other standards under the federal law. The new standards cover a wide range of public accessibility issues, from amusement parks to zoos.

During the proposed rules' discussion period, banking groups asked to include existing ATMs under the act's "safe harbor" provision. That applies mostly to building requirements, such as the height of light switches or plumbing specifications.

If a business remodeled its building in, say, 1998, and followed the standards in place at the time, it wouldn't be required to meet the 2012 standards until it remodels again.

Eventually, the bankers argued, nearly all ATMs would be replaced with machines that would meet the new standards.

But the Justice Department didn't allow the safe harbor rule for ATMs. The department gave the force of law to the new rules in July 2010 and said it would begin enforcing them on March 15, 2012.

Virginia O'Neill, senior counsel for the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C., said some smaller banks were taken by surprise, but large banks have been upgrading ATM networks for years.

She said she understands the government's reasoning: Access to financial services is important, and replacing all old-style ATMs voluntarily would take more than a decade.

If a bank is in financial trouble and its spending is so restricted that it couldn't afford any extra expenses, it could try that argument, O'Neill said, but there's a risk of litigation.

She said banks that won't meet the compliance deadline should make a plan and talk to their visually impaired customers. Maybe one fully equipped ATM would be enough for the short term.

"The blind feel like it's been a long time, and I completely get that," O'Neill said. "It's the right thing. It's important to service your whole customer base."

Some ATM manufacturers are offering trade-ins to reduce the cost of meeting the standards, said Aimee Leeper, marketing manager for Triton in Louisville, Ky., the parent company of ATM Gurus. There's been a recent spike in the sale of conversion kits to add voice capability and other requirements, she said.

Small, nonbank ATM companies may have problems because they have a slim profit margin, Leepers said. "But it's the standard. Now it's sort of a race to the finish for everyone to get things in line to be able to comply in time. I think it'll be a valiant effort."