Fun_People Archive
21 Mar
Braille on Drive-up Automated Teller Machines

Date: Tue, 21 Mar 95 23:53:26 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: Braille on Drive-up Automated Teller Machines

[I must see a dozen articles each year that decry the apparent contradictions
in having braille on drive-up ATMs.  A few are actually funny, but I always
felt the underlying concept was flawed.  Here, Cecil Adams, of Straight Dope
fame, looks a little deeper into this question...  -psl]

From: Straight Dope 5-20-94
Copyright 1994 Chicago Reader

     A question gnaws at me. We've all used those drive-up teller machines
at banks. Why are the buttons identified with braille? --Vox Populi,
     Because federal regulations require it, wiseguy. To be specific,
section 4.34.4 of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and
Facilities (Appendix to Part 1191, 36 CFR Chapter XI, issued pursuant to
the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) says, "Instructions and all
information for use [of an automated teller machine] shall be made
accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments."
Drive-up ATMs, unlike the walk-up variety, don't need to be wheelchair
accessible, but the rules make no exception regarding accessibility by the
     You're now thinking: boy, those federal bureaucrats sure are stupid.
Don't they realize a blind person isn't going to be able to drive to a
drive-up ATM? Cecil reserves judgment on the stupidity question, but even
if the feds weren't smart enough to notice this little problem on their own,
there were plenty of poeple who pointed it out for them before the rule was
finalized. The American Bankers Association, for one, asked that drive-up
machines be exempt from the visually-impaired requirement, arguing that a
blind person using a drive-up ATM would have to be a passenger and that the
driver of the vehicle could help with the transaction.
     No dice, said the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance
Board, reasoning that driver assistance "would not allow the [blind]
individual to use the ATM independently." This may sound like one of those
absurd points of principle, but ATM manufacturers say a fair number of blind
people do take cabs to drive-up ATMs, and nobody wants to ask a total
stranger to help with a financial transaction.
     Your question does point to a more serious problem, which other readers
have also raised: how the hell is a blind person supposed to use any kind
of ATM? Whether the keypad numbers are identified with braille or not, there
isn't any braille translation of the on-screen instructions, without which
the machine is useless. Maybe, you're thinking, the problem isn't the
brainless bureaucrats, it's the brainless (or cynical) bankers and ATM
builders, who figure a pretense of accessibility will get them off the hook.
     But that isn't it either. At the time the accessibility rules were
written, and to a great extent still today, there was no agreement on the
best way to make ATMs accessible to the blind. More than 50 ideas have been
proposed, including a "talking machine," detailed braille instructions, an
automated "bank-by-phone" setup with a telephone handset and a keypad, and
so on. (Sample problem: if you use a "voice guided" ATM, how do you keep
others from overhearing?) Another difficulty was retrofitting the thousands
of machines already installed.
     The bankers and ATM builders argued that the best thing to do was leave
the federal rules vague until the industry figured out a practical approach.
The not-entirely-satisfactory solution in the interim has been to (1) mark
ATM keypads, input and output slots, etc., with braille, and (2) send
braille ATM instruction brochures or audio cassettes to blind bank patrons
requesting them. The theory is that while ATM operation varies from machine
to machine, people conduct most of their transactions at just a few
locations, the operating sequences for which they can memorize. The drawback
of this approach is that you have to know that the special instructions are
available and you can only use the machines you have instructions for.
     Happily, the banks and ATM builders have been reasonably diligent in
trying to come up with more accessible equipment, some of which is starting
to show up in the marketplace now. About time, say some advocacy groups.
"We don't want to see information technology [e.g., ATMs] become the new
curb," says Elga Joffee of the American Foundation for the Blind. "There's
certainly no reason to squelch evolving technology. I just wish they'd hurry
up and evolve it."
                                --CECIL ADAMS

[=] © 1995 Peter Langston []