The ubiquity of ATMs has made banking easier and more convenient for most consumers. But it's difficult to withdraw cash or complete other transactions if you can't see prompts on a screen.
A settlement announced yesterday among the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, the Massachusetts attorney general's office and Cardtronics Inc., the nation's largest operator of nonbank automated teller machines, is expected to significantly alter that.
Under the agreement, Cardtronics will increase the number of machines equipped with voice guidance technology to a majority of its U.S. fleet of nearly 29,000 machines by mid-2010. The voice feature is activated by plugging headphones into a jack on the ATM.
"The ATM is the most common way for members of the sighted public to conduct financial transactions," Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said in a statement. "To be full participants in modern society, blind people must have access to these devices."
Cardtronics, based in Houston, owns or manages a network of ATMs in retail stores such as Target, Walgreens and Rite-Aid, as well as in gas stations and hotels.
The company has nearly 6 percent of the U.S. market. It is expected to close by the end of the month a deal to acquire the U.S. ATM operations of 7-Eleven Inc., further expanding its reach.
In Maryland, Cardtronics owns or operates 489 machines in retail stores and places such as Tremont Plaza Hotel and the Power Plant in Baltimore, according to the company's Web site.
The agreement over ATM access is part of an aggressive national campaign by the National Federation of the Blind in recent years to push for accessibility for blind people, through litigation and other means.
In March, the federation announced a six-year partnership with online retailer Amazon.com to make its Web site more accessible by looking for ways to incorporate new technology without overwhelming screen-reading software.
The group also is working with home appliance manufacturers to improve accessibility.
In the area of ATM accessibility, the federation won a settlement in 2001 against Chevy Chase Bank, requiring the institution to equip all its automated teller machines in Maryland, Virginia and Washington with audio technology. In 2000, the group partnered with Diebold, a leading ATM manufacturer, to upgrade and simplify Diebold's existing voice-guidance capabilities.
"What motivates us in doing these cases besides trying to get access is we're trying to get across to the community that by being inaccessible, businessmen are denying a market they want to have," said Dan Goldstein, a Baltimore attorney who represented the federation in the ATM lawsuit. "The compliance with the [Americans with Disabilities Act] not only makes good economic sense, but it could be profitable."
While many ATMs are equipped with Braille, the federation says that is not enough.
"The ATMs require that you interact with them," said John G. Pare Jr., the federation's director of public relations. "They're going to put stuff on the screen. A blind person can't see it. You have to have the audio. The Braille may help identify which button to push, but they're not going to tell you what's on the screen. The ATM is not accessible without the audio."
The settlement resolves a 2003 lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general's office and the federation against E*Trade Access Inc. and E*Trade Bank, whose ATM fleet was acquired by Cardtronics a year later.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires ATMs to be made accessible and independently usable by the blind, said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Jack M. Antonini, president and chief executive officer of Cardtronics, said the company is committed to improving accessibility for blind consumers.
"I share the National Federation of the Blind's view that this settlement agreement is a significant milestone and am proud that together with the National Federation of the Blind, Cardtronics will be a leader, not a follower, in improving ATM accessibility," Antonini said in a statement.
Advocates for the blind and industry experts say banks have been quicker to adopt the voice guidance technology on their machines than merchant-owned ATMs.
"Banks have made great strides in putting forth machines you could plug into and some banks have gone the route of offering customers a special phone they could dial into," said John Hall, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, who called the Cardtronics settlement a major step for the nonbank ATM market.
The agreement calls for Cardtronics to upgrade machines that it owns with the audio feature by the end of the year. That includes about 12,800 devices in its existing network and about 5,500 7-Eleven machines that it soon will acquire.
Cardtronics also agreed not to renew any merchant's contract after mid-2010 unless the merchant's devices are voice-guided, according to the attorney general's office.
In addition, Cardtronics has committed to meeting a requirement that calls for 90 percent of all transactions to be voice-enabled.