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Advocates for the Blind Take Aim at Touch-Screen Terminals

Have you seen those Visa commercials where everything in the store suddenly stops because some poor soul tries to pay old-school with a check? That's what it's like every time a blind person approaches a touch-screen terminal.

They have no trouble pulling out their debit or credit card, of course. But how can a sightless person conduct a private and secure transaction with a touch-screen ATM (automatic teller machine) or point-of-sale (POS) terminal that has no tactile keyboard, or failing that, an audio jack?

Jonathan Simeone, a blind lawyer who specializes in disability law, had just such a screeeeeech! moment at a grocery store recently. "I couldn't do debit because I wouldn't give them my PIN (personal identification number), so I had to switch from debit to credit. Since they had already rung me up, the cashier had to find a manager who knew how to print out a paper credit card receipt and I had to sign that. Because I couldn't do those things, it held up the line for a minute."

Blind People Often Prefer Plastic: Don't misunderstand: The nation's 3.3 million blind people are big on credit cards. In fact, many prefer them to cash. Why? Because the United States stands alone among 180 currency-issuing jurisdictions as the only country that prints its bills the same size and colour in all denominations, thereby rendering them inaccessible to the blind.

The blind overcome their payment challenges in clever ways: They organize or fold their bills differently to distinguish between denominations of cash, and apply braille stickers or use other tactile methods to identify their credit cards. But there's no easy workaround for a touch-screen interface; without a tactile keyboard or audio, the whole screen becomes one big stop button for the blind.

"We are not generally happy about the proliferation of touch-screen technology because it's not a technology we can use," says Chris Danielsen, a blind spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "At the very least, blind people need tactile buttons, where we know there's a raised dot on the 5 of a telephone keypad or bumps on the F and J of a computer keypad. If it's just a touch screen, we can't do anything with that type of technology unless it includes some other interface that allows the blind person to use it."

Entering PINs a Problem: Danielsen says debit transactions are particularly vexing because they typically require a PIN. "If the machine doesn't have a tactile keypad, then you can't enter your PIN and your only option is to recite your PIN to the salesperson, which is obviously not a good idea," he says.

But even credit card purchases carry additional risk for the blind.

Touch Screens Pose New Difficulties for the Blind: The problem: New payment technologies, such as touch-screen interfaces in stores, are often built without tactile cues that allow the blind to use them.

Who's affected: The 3.3 million blind people in the United States.

What's next: Advocates for the blind are seeking voluntary, and where necessary, legally mandated changes so that such technologies have alternative access for the blind.

"You have no way of knowing, when you sign the receipt, what they have charged on your credit card," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), who has been blind since birth. She found out the hard way: Her credit card information was once stolen, she suspects, by a sales clerk, leaving her with a half-dozen purchases to challenge.

Cut Off by the Cutting Edge: Blind advocates point out that public accommodations brought about under the landmark Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have frequently benefited non-disabled Americans as well. For example, curb cuts make pedestrian travel easier for everyone. And you don't have to be deaf to enjoy closed captioning at health clubs and sports bars.

The ACB recently won a seven-year battle with the Treasury Department that is expected to finally make U.S. currency accessible in the coming years. Danielsen predicts that such a redesign will prove a particular boon to aging baby boomers.

"The baby boom generation is about to hit retirement and a lot of seniors lose vision," he says. "Diabetes is the No. 1 cause of blindness and that is commonly understood to be an epidemic in this country, so more and more people are experiencing this."

Thanks to technology, the blind can surf the internet with the aid of screen-reading programs. Unfortunately, another technological marvel, the touch screen, has left the vision-impaired cut off by the cutting edge.

"I don't understand how touch screens make it easier for a sighted person," says Simeone. "I can't think of a practical advantage to why sighted people need to have touch screens. We have buttons on our telephones, we have buttons on our computer keyboards. I mean, what's the big deal?"

The big deal, of course, lies deep in the American appetite for wonderment and a consumer products industry that thrives on innovation, often for its own sake. For the sightless, the substitution of touch screens for tactile dials on everything from stoves and voting machines to elevators and iPhones seems like a giant step backward in functionality.

"Now that you have things going to touch screen, it's very hard for a blind person to set the temperature setting on an oven or what have you," says Danielsen. "The solution to that is to have tactile buttons and uniform settings, for example, so that you know that an oven always starts at 200 degrees, for example, and every time you touch the UP arrow, it's going to advance by 25 degrees."

Ending Design Dissonance: The NFB has a robust initiative surrounding "universal design" that encourages--or, if necessary, seeks to force--industries, including the makers of ATMs and POS terminals, to design products everyone can use. It recently convinced ATM manufacturing giant Diebold to voluntarily make its cash machines accessible with audio prompts. In a similar agreement, Cardtronics Inc., the nation's largest non-bank owner of ATMs, agreed to install audio jacks in some 29,000 ATMs nationwide.

Danielsen says significant progress has been made with bank-owned ATMs, most of which now offer a tactile keypad option or audio jack to complement at least some, if not all, of their touch-screen interfaces. But the sledding has been much slower with POS and non-bank ATM manufacturers.

"People wrongly assume the ADA solved all of this. It did not; it made clear what the legal requirements were. Unfortunately, the ADA isn't self-executing; the Justice Department is supposed to enforce it, but they have to receive complaints. And that doesn't happen automatically. We have a handful of agreements in which merchants have said they simply won't buy machines that aren't accessible, but those are few and far between."

Merchants, after all, are disinclined to pressure their equipment suppliers to make design changes for which they may ultimately pick up the tab.

Simeone says that unlike the one-on-one battle for accessible currency that pitted ACB against the Treasury, bringing the POS and ATM industry to adopt universal design might require numerous lawsuits and years of legal arm wrestling. "This may be more appropriate for a legislative solution, where point-of-sale devices would have to be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act," he says.

If there's a positive note for the blind in this design dissonance, it's that they are finally being recognized as a consumer force worth accommodating--and courting.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, there weren't as many disabled people out and about doing stuff," says Danielsen. "We're not terribly far removed from the time when most disabled people didn't work and stayed in their home or some institution. It's our function at the NFB to say, 'Hey, we are out here. We would love to do business with you. We would love to spend our money. We just need some accommodation in order to be able to do that.'"

(C) 2010, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission, October 8, 2008. Original URL:

Photo: Touch Screen Terminal