The Case for Accessible Banking

Posted by Dinesh Kaushal at Nov 23, 2011 08:30 AM |
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Dinesh Kaushal examines the state of accessibility of banking services in India. By giving concrete examples of shortcomings in existing ATMs and net banking facilities which make it difficult for persons with disabilities to do electronic transactions, Dinesh urges banks to make a move to upgrade their ATMs and make their web services accessible.

The Automated Teller Machine (ATM) with its facility for withdrawing cash on the go and transacting banking business through internet has become a vital aspect of everyday life. It is important for independent living and this facility should be made available universally, particularly for the disabled for whom visiting the banks may be difficult. However, despite a universal recognition of the importance of this facility, only a few countries have taken the necessary steps to enable it for persons with disabilities.

ATM machines and net banking have brought comfort for every one of us except for a few who are unable to use such conveniences. In India, although the Reserve Bank of India appears to have identified this as a needful area, barely a handful of accessible ATMs are available for use by persons with disabilities. There are people who can't see, who can't walk or use their hands and more often than not persons with such disabilities are dependent on family members or friends to use ATM facilities like withdrawing cash, checking mini statements, requesting for a new chequebook, transferring funds, etc. This needs to change. A better tomorrow can be made only if we start moving now.

Technology and careful consideration can make a major difference between frustrating limitations and exhilarating independence. Technology has radically transformed the way persons with disabilities live their daily lives. For example, a blind person can today browse the internet, communicate through e-mails, and read and write documents with the assistance of a special software called screen reader that speaks out the text on the computer screen. It was unimaginable for a blind person to read or write printed text prior to the arrival of computers. Despite these advancements, the impact of technology is yet to be seen in some areas.

The advent of ATM and internet banking could potentially make persons with disabilities more independent in respect of personal financial matters. Someone who can’t walk could do most of the transactions from his or her home, without the hassle of going to the bank. Similarly, a blind person could use the bank’s website to make payments without worrying about the hassle of having to deal with print document such as cheques or other bank documents.

As we know, an ATM is used to withdraw money from the bank or to do other transactions that help us to operate our bank accounts such as checking our bank balances or ordering cheque books. An ATM's interface is mostly visual. We go to an ATM machine, look at the machine to know where to insert the ATM card, and then interact with the screen that helps us to complete our transactions.

A blind person or an illiterate person can't read the ATM screen. They would need the help of another person to operate it. But many a times, it is impossible to find someone who can help to access the ATM machine, and even if one can find help, it is often impossible to find a trustworthy person with whom one’s bank details can be shared.

Accessing an ATM is also challenging for wheelchair bound persons and even though such persons can read the screen of an ATM machine, they find it difficult to reach the machine itself because often there are stairs to reach the room where the ATM machine is kept. Furthermore, even where they manage to get inside, the screen and keypad of the ATM machine are often too high to be operated by someone seated on a wheelchair. A physically disabled person might have to hand over his ATM card and pin to someone to withdraw cash on his behalf.

There are similar problems with net banking. Net banking makes it easy to do various transactions from the comforts of our home, and for persons with disabilities it can become a blessing. Many of the offline transactions that could be daunting for persons with disabilities can be easily done on an accessible website. For example, a blind person will definitely need help to write cheques or read printed bank statements, but the same transactions can be done independently through net banking with the help of a talking computer or a talking mobile phone. Net banking websites must be made accessible so that persons with disabilities can use them. But many net banking websites are not developed using standard web technologies such as proper html tags and Accessible Rich Internet Applications for complex applications, making it difficult for a person with disability to use such websites independently. For example, tabular information can be shown just by arranging it with tabs and spaces, but such arrangement makes it difficult for assistive software to allow meaningful interaction with the table. Instead of table with spaces and tabs, html provides tags to mark such table elements, and assistive technology allows keystrokes to explore such tables. For example, Citibank’s statements provide all entries of one column as one cell so all entries’ details are in one cell, and their amounts or other information is in another cell. However, for a person using assistive technology, it is easy if each entry has its own cell and each entry is in a row. Without proper table marking it is difficult to match each entry’s details.

There are standards and technologies that make it possible for a person with disability to access websites and ATM machines, such as text to speech or ability to playback audio files for ATMs and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 for websites. But technology doesn’t work on its own alone. Application of accessible technology requires willingness of the banks and other parties. For example, ATM manufactures often have ATM machines that can start talking with very few modifications such as the mere addition of audio recordings for the messages on screen, and most of the accessibility problems with net banking websites are minor fixes as well. For example, one such problem is where a bank’s website may be mostly accessible, but its net banking portal (the interface that is used during making payments for online transactions) may not have the option to enter the password with the keyboard, although the same bank’s site would allow entry of the password with the keyboard during the normal login process. Even though such fixes do not require expensive modifications, it is hard to find accessible ATM machines and accessible websites.

A talking ATM is the regular ATM with an additional module that allows a blind person to get the information in audio format. A talking ATM could be configured so that when a user plugs in a headphone in the audio jack, the ATM would start talking to the person with audio messages. This interface is similar to the IVR that we use in phone banking. Providing audio messages via a headphone jack is safe as well. Installing talking ATM technology is not very expensive. It might range anywhere between Rs. 25,000 and Rs. 50,000.[1]

It is understandable that banks can't upgrade all the ATM machines simultaneously, but they must start somewhere, so they may try any one of the following:

  1. Make sure that all new ATM installations are audio enabled, as all major ATM manufacturers now produce talking ATMs including: Triton, NCR, Wincor-Nixdorf, Diebold, and Fujitsu.
  2. Evaluate all the existing ATM machines to find out if they can be converted to talking ATM machines by only upgrading the software. If that is the case, upgrade the software with the help of the manufacturer.
  3. Find out if the remaining ATM machines can be converted to talking ATM machines by adding special hardware. The manufacturer of that ATM would be able to provide such hardware.
  4. For the rest of the ATM machines, mark them and when possible replace them with new machines.

To understand how talking ATM machines work, you can either check out the ATMs of the Punjab National Bank or IndusInd Bank  or listen to an online recording of episode 138 of a radio show Eyeway Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan. The discussion about talking ATM starts after 9 minutes 20 seconds of the episode.[2]

In order to make banking more accessible, make sure that the following strategies are followed:

  1. Start with good usability practices such as the full participation of persons with disabilities during the implementation of accessible features. For example, involvement of blind persons in evaluating the effectiveness of the speech quality and information spoken by the talking ATM would make it possible to develop systems that are usable.
  2. Ensure that there is a fair representation of various disabilities. Make it possible for people who use wheelchairs to reach the ATM.
  3. For the net banking to be accessible, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines should be followed, and the websites must be tested by persons with disabilities.

Accessible banking is good business as well as social responsibility of the banks. In India, this has even been acknowledged by the RBI, which has issued a notification (DBOD.No.Leg.BC.123 /09.07.005/2008-09)[3] suggesting that at least one-third of the new ATMs of all banks must be accessible. There are already some examples such as the Punjab National Bank that has a few talking ATM machines in Jaipur. State bank of India had announced in January 2010 that it will install 7000 talking ATMs,[4] but but we do not know what is the status now. Another problem is that many ATMs have limited accessibility such as talking welcome message or signout message, but that does not pass as accessible ATM. We must at least achieve the target set by the RBI.

Some countries have already implemented talking ATMs on a very large scale. For example, in the United States one in every four ATMs are talking ATMs. In Canada, there is a national standard (CSA B651.1-09 - Accessible design for automated banking machines). This standard is available for purchase for the implementation of accessible ATMs. In 2011 UK's leading charity for blind and partially sighted people, RNIB, launched a campaign to get major banks to install talking cash machines.

Financial independence in the true sense is possible only when a blind person or someone who is in a wheelchair can perform all banking transactions without the need of help from someone else.

[1].This information is provided by Dinesh Gujjar, see the acknowledgement below.
[2].The episode can be downloaded at

Acknowledgement and reference
  1. The information regarding accessible banking in foreign countries and names of ATM manufacturers who provide accessible ATM machines has been obtained from the “make money talk” campaign report – RNIB.
  2. Some background information is also available at the talking ATM page of the Wikipedia.
  3. I am thankful to Dinesh Gujjar of Punjab National Bank for providing me the information about PNB's talking ATM machines and existence of the RBI notification that requests banks to provide one-third ATMs as talking ATMs.
  4. I am also thankful to Pranay Gadodia and Satguru Rathi from Eyeway for connecting me with Dinesh Gujjar and providing me with the text of the RBI notification mentioned above.

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