top of page

Talking Automatic Teller Machines: An Accessibility Milestone for the Blind

By Linda Bartram

Most Canadians take Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) for granted these days and even those of us who rely on talking ATM don’t give much thought to how they came about. So here’s a brief history.

The first ATM was installed in a Barclays Bank in London England in 1967. For 30 years however, ATM remained off-limits to blind people, who couldn’t independently use the interactive (and silent) visual screens. It was not until October 22, 1997, that the world was introduced to the very first talking ATM at a Royal Bank in Ottawa.

Yes, the first was in Canada!! But it didn’t just come about as a result of banking advancements. It happened because blind Canadian activists Chris and Marie Stark had filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission which was resolved in their favour.

The result of their extraordinary efforts was a retrofit of a typical machine produced by the National Cash Register Company that graced many bank locations across Canada and the United States. The machine was retrofitted with an audio interface designed by a young Ottawa company called T-Base Communications, run by a blind entrepreneur, Sharlyn Ayotte. In addition to this audio interface was a jack input that individuals could plug in a set of earphones in order to do their banking. Users also had an additional function that would enable them to black out the screen if desired, so that their financial information remained private.

RBC was heralded as the first commercial bank in the world to take such a step, but the talking ATM was not the bank’s first move towards accessibility. Neither would their efforts emerge from nowhere. In contrast, a more transparent and accessible financial sector in Canada, of which the talking ATM was just one part, was the result of over a decade of activism on the part of people who were blind or partially sighted. Now the talking ATM and the move toward accessible banking in general is recognized as a milestone for human rights in Canada.

Fast forward to today and blind AEBC member activists like Chris, Marie and Sharlyn continue to advocate for access to self service interactive devices such as those we are encountering more and more often at retail stores, restaurants and airports. Until all such devices are “born accessible,” we will continue to be involved in promoting standards compliance and when necessary, filing human rights complaints.

Much to my chagrin, I heard recently, that a blind peer encountered an ATM at their local bank with a totally flat screen with no accessibility features. This is a step backwards and needs to be addressed. So, if you encounter such a machine, speak with the bank manager and if the problem is not resolved, let AEBC know. We all need to do our part in ensuring accessibility for the blind, deafblind and partially sighted community. We must not lose hard-won ground!

And if you would like to know more about those tireless pioneers of the talking ATM, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude, visit:

FEATURED IMAGE ALT TEXT: Photo of woman using an ATM machine.


bottom of page