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Audio Atm Benefits The Blind

Editor's Note: Editors Note: Tina Mintz is a freelance writer who lives in Montreal, Quebec. The following article is reprinted from the Montreal Gazette, Tuesday 12 October 1999.

Audio ATM benefits the blind: Advocates hail Quebec first but say progress is slow, service inconsistent White cane in hand, Irene Lambert addresses the Royal Bank of Canada's automated-teller machine in the Cote St. Luc shopping centre. First, her fingertips glide lightly over the keys and slots. Then, orienting herself by touch, she puts on a headset, presses the jack into the machine-and listens.

Moments later, after completing her transaction without seeing a thing, Lambert leaves with $20 and a new found sense of independence made possible by Quebec's first audio automated-teller machine.

Its just such a thrilling and satisfying feeling to be able to go to a bank machine and do it all myself, to not have to ask for help, or give out my PIN number to anyone, said the Pointe Claire woman who lost her sight to a progressive eye ailment years ago.

They've done a great job with the voice instructions, and the raised tactile symbols on the keys are also very useful once you know what they stand for, said Lambert, president of the Low Vision Self-Help Association and the Montreal Association for the Blind Users Committee. Still, several blind people questioned the placement of this ATM several blocks from the Montreal Association for the Blind on Sherbrooke St. W. There is no direct bus service, and customers have to cross several busy streets and a parking lot to reach it from the MAB. The Royal Bank began developing its audio ATM in 1996 and installed the first one in Ottawa. There are now 15 machines across Canada, mostly in Ontario. The latest version includes an interactive voice system that works much like those used by businesses to answer customers calls. Verbal prompts are given, and transactions are selected and carried out using the machines keypad.

The audio ATM is not just for blind and visually impaired people, said Martin Bloom, Royal Bank Vice-President (West Montreal region.) It can also help those who have a learning disability or a low level of literacy.

Nancy Leamen, director of human resources for the Canadian Bankers Association, said banks have been making an effort to make branches more accessible to those with disabilities. In recent years, they have helped the visually impaired with measures like large-print cheques and statements in Braille. But not all of Canada's six major banks offer the same services, and often what is available is not well-publicised.

Florence Pardo of the Rassemblement des Aveugles et Amblyopes du Quebec, which promotes the interests and rights of the blind and visually impaired, said she gives the banking industry mixed reviews. I appreciate that they are making an effort, but its going very slowly, Pardo said. The Royal Banks audio ATM works very well, but right now there's only one for all of Montreal, and I would have placed it somewhere where more blind people would have access to it.

Banks keep cutting back on staff and they want everybody to use the machines. But they must realise that some people with disabilities cant. If they want us to use the automated system, they have to give us the means to do so. Leamen pointed to the sheer size of Canada's banking system as a major obstacle to rapid change: Were talking about national networks with thousands of branches and thousands of ATMs. And there are many generations of ATMs currently in use and each generation is somewhat different. Some cant incorporate the new adaptive technology and (at approximately $60,000 each) the cost of replacing these machines before they've completed their life cycle would be prohibitive. Achieving consensus on just how to adapt ATMs is another barrier. A few years ago, CBA sought input from banks, ATM manufacturers and people with visual disabilities via a series of focus groups.

The consultation process took several years and shed light on the security, physical and technological constraints inherent in modifying ATMs, and revealed consumers varying needs and preferences like audio vs. Braille vs. large print. We presented our recommendations to the Canadian Standards Association and they are currently in the final stages of development of an accessible ATM standard, Leamen said. CSA standards for barrier-free design are largely voluntary, she said.

Still, its important for banks to have a credible standard to work toward, she added. As far as Lambert is concerned, using money will never be barrier-free unless one key obstacle is removed: I still cant tell one bill from another, so I often have no way of knowing what denominations the machine is giving me. The Canadian mint is still working on the problem, she said. When I use a banking machine, I have to find someone who I think I can trust to identify my money for me. Then I keep it organised in my wallet: fives on the right with the fold to the right; tens on the left with the fold to the left; twenties folded twice and put away in a separate compartment. Lambert owns an electronic bill identifier bills slid into a horizontal slot are identified audibly but finds the device too cumbersome to carry. Besides, I don't want to be standing at an ATM fumbling with yet another piece of equipment. Like everyone else, I just want to put my money away and get out of there as fast as possible.

Real Cheque

Sometimes even using the simplest, low-tech adaptation can cause problems. Once, Lambert recalled, I tried to pay the delivery man from the dry cleaners with one of my special large-print cheques that has raised lines. He returned it to me and said: The boss doesn't want this; he wants a real cheque. I had to call and convince the man that it was indeed a real, legal cheque. She added: My sense of equality is directly related to my having equal access to information and services. Progress in this regard has been slow, but I'm optimistic because businesses, including banks, have started taking our needs and rights seriously. Fifteen more Royal Bank audio ATMs are to open across the country beginning next month. The six major banks vary considerably in what adapted products and services are available. For more information concerning a specific bank or financial institution, inquire at your local branch or contact the head office.