Vol. 21 No. 1
From Our Readers
ATM’s for the Blind: A
Lesson in Advocacy
sure there are many who, like me, were dismayed when the new generation of
automatic teller machines (ATM) appeared on the scene. Around Boston these were
introduced by the Baybank chain. At first I was irritated at this barrier to
blind clients like myself. Upon further consideration, I grew worried, sensing
that this was a harbinger of other computerized “advances” that were
increasingly skewed to a sighted world.
answer to my inquiry, my local branch gave me the name and address of the person
in charge of Disability Services. I wrote a letter pointing out that the few
lines of Braille posted on the sill of each ATM were not nearly sufficient to
enable a blind customer to use these new machines. Within days I received a
letter thanking me for my interest. Enclosed with it were instructions in
Braille and on audio tape. The tape included the noises made by the ATM during
an actual transaction.
was pleased and impressed, both by the quick response and the bank’s attitude,
its anticipation of my needs and the work that had been done in advance to meet
these. This sort of willingness and cooperation is to be encouraged, I thought.
Wanting to support the bank’s efforts, I went over the material I’d been
sent and wrote back with a list of the few mistakes or discrepancies I came
across. Again, I was promptly thanked and invited to let them know if there was
anything more they could do.
a year letter, Baybank was merged with Bank Boston in one of the many
consolidations we are seeing throughout the corporate landscape, the ATM’s
when that bank in turn was acquired by Fleet Bank it was quite a different
story. All of a sudden we found ourselves part of the fourth largest banking
system in the nation, one positioning itself as a global contender. Around the
city there were outcries against what many saw as the bank’s pulling up stakes
and abandoning its commitment to local neighborhoods. The papers ran articles
about customer dissatisfaction over new banking policies charging fees for what
had formerly been standard services. Electronic banking, whether by ATM, phone
or computer link, was being pushed. None of this augured well for people with
transition took place in late spring. A letter informed us that the new bank
cards had to be initialized by a certain date in May. My mother and I (I live
with my parents) reported to our local branch bank the week before the deadline
to straighten out some other issues. Following that, we went to the ATM to
activate our cards. That was when I learned that the touch screens had been
altered. They now had a new feature, a selection of languages in which one
wanted to conduct one’s transactions. My mother pressed the screen for me. I
then entered my number and proceeded through the sequence of keystrokes I*d
always used in the past to withdraw forty dollars. The machine gave me twenty.
Thinking I might have gone through the keystrokes too quickly, I did it again.
This time the machine dispensed eighty dollars. Clearly the software had been
changed. Everything had been reprogrammed.
I asked a bank employee for the instructions for using the machine without
having to touch the screen, she didn’t know what I was talking about. A week
later she phoned me to say that the machines could only be operated by touching
the screen. “When you come into the bank, we will have to help you.”
asked where to write to the bank to correct the problem and was given an address
in Rhode Island. It sounded suspiciously like a mail stop for a large department
comprised of anonymous employees. I envisioned my letter being conveniently lost
in the flood of other mail from irate customers.
I wrote the letter, Admittedly, its tone was not friendly. I related my
experiences with what I deemed effective sarcasm seeking to embarrass the bank
by its egregious oversight. My message had been something along the lines of
“This used to work just fine until you came along and spent millions of
dollars screwing things up.”
expected them to rectify the error immediately. After all, it was so obviously a
blunder, such a public relations disaster, that they could not have failed to
correct it as soon as it was brought to their attention. Just to give them an
added incentive, I let them know, by a discreet “cc: The Boston Globe” at
the bottom of my letter, that the paper was being apprised of this issue and was
sure to follow it up. The bank would have to remedy things to forestall more
adverse coverage in the press.
then wrote a letter to the newspaper’s editor drawing attention to Fleet’s
thoughtlessness toward people with blindness, and enclosed a copy of the letter
I’d sent to Fleet. My letter to the editor ran in the paper in late July,
alongside another one criticizing the manufacture of such ATM machines that
discriminated against the blind. Pleased with my efforts, I waited for results.
months nothing happened. No articles appeared in the Globe to announce that
Fleet was reaching out to its blind customers. What did appear was another
letter to the editor complaining about another aspect of the bank’s ATMs,
getting confusing printouts when requesting to see one’s account balances.
letter got results. In my next bank statement was an enclosure announcing that
at a Fleet ATM one could now know one’s finances “at a glance.” Ouch! The
wording gave no consideration to the non-sighted. My letters had had no impact.
wrote another letter. Recalling a friend’s previous advice to “go straight
to the top,” this time I wrote to the bank’s president. I had requested the
name and address from one of the branches where I often used the ATM and, after
some conferring in an inside office, I was given a card with the information
hand-written on the back. That in itself bothered me. My mother and I had had to
explain why I wanted the president’s address, and it still needed to meet with
an underling’s approval.
was careful to keep my letter to one page. As before, it was ironic, sarcastic,
aimed at shaming the man at the top into doing something. Before sending it, I
ran it past some writing friends. I had remembered their criticism of the first
letter: “Get to the point. How is a blind person expected to use this
thing?” I began my letter to the president that way.
my friends had more pointed, useful criticism: tone down the anger. You want to
get this person on your side. Why not simply say something like, “I am a blind
customer who has been frustrated in trying to use your ATM’s.”?
the most useful advice came when another asked me what I hoped to accomplish by
this letter. I had thought that was obvious: change the machines. Fix the
software so that all the steps, even selecting the language, can be performed
using the number keys. Make those instructions available. To that my friend
replied, “Well why don’t you say that? Tell them that they could fix the
problem by doing the following three things, and then list them. The person
receiving this letter doesn’t want to read through your complaints and then
have to figure out what to do. You’ll help your cause by volunteering
was excellent advice. I saw right away how I’d been going about it all wrong.
I had been delivering tirades about the bank’s incompetence. Instead I needed
to make an ally of the person who received my letter. I needed to facilitate his
compliance, show him the solution. Show him how simple it is, that it’s not a
problem. All he needed to do is hand my letter to someone and say, “Carry out
weeks after mailing off my letter I received a thick envelope in the post.
Inside was a cordial letter from a Mr. Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Self/ATM
Banking, thanking me for my recent missive and hoping that what he was sending
me would be of help. The letter and his business card were paper clipped to a
fat book of Braille instructions. Also in the package were a cassette tape and a
compact disc. I have read through the first twenty or so pages of the
instructions, and compared them to the cassette. They are identical word for
word. On the whole it is a comprehensive and far superior set of directions than
the guide first put out by Baybank. Anyone who wants the guides can request them
by calling toll-free: (800) 841-4000.
a press conference at the Perkins School for the Blind on February 28, 2001,
Fleet announced a comprehensive plan to ensure that persons with vision
impairments can conveniently access banking services. The plan includes
installation of, what they call, the first “talking ATMs” in New England
together with improved accessibility of their web site,
the web site or call (800) 841-4000 for more information about accessible
offerings from Fleet.