- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

ATM maker Diebold Inc. agreed to install voice-guided machines at three Rite Aid pharmacies in the District of Columbia through a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, which recently dropped a suit against the company.

The Baltimore-based nonprofit organization and the North Canton, Ohio-based automated-teller machine manufacturer and operator also agreed late Tuesday to team up to develop a new generation of voice-guided ATMs.

The federation filed suit against Diebold and Rite Aid Corp. in May, charging the companies were not complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Diebold makes "talking ATMs," but was not placing them in Rite Aid stores. The group dropped the suit before the agreement was signed.

Also in May, the federation filed a separate action against Chevy Chase Bank, the largest operator of ATMs in the Washington area. That suit is still pending, and the federation is working to reach an agreement with that company as well.

The talking ATMs wanted by the federation have an outlet where visually impaired individuals can plug in headphones and hear voice prompts. Though many machines do have Braille on the keys, individual plaintiffs in the now-defunct Diebold suit said many ATMs now have touch screens that are inaccessible to the blind.

Before the end of the year, Diebold will place costly models of free-standing, "retail" ATMs in Rite Aid stores at 1034 15th St. NW, 1815 Connecticut Ave. NW and 1306 U St. NW.

But the company is working with the federation to develop lower-cost voice-guided ATMs, and hopes to run a pilot program with the new machines in spring.

"As far as I know, we'll be the first ones to [develop cheaper voice-guided software] in this class of machine," said Alan Looney, director of product planning and management for Diebold. The company makes other talking ATMs that are not free standing.

Marc Maurer, the federation's president, said companies usually develop new technology without consulting with the handicapped on making it accessible. After the product is introduced, disabled groups point out its flaws.

"It takes forever to get retrofitted and takes lots of money," Mr. Maurer said.

In this case, accessibility is a goal from the beginning through what he called a "genuine partnership" between the company and the federation.

Mr. Maurer said voice-guided machines benefit not only the blind, but also the elderly whose sight is failing and the illiterate.

Mr. Looney estimated that out of the nation's nearly 200,000 ATMs, fewer than 1 percent are voice-guided.

That means blind customers often must get assistance withdrawing money or transferring funds at a machine, enlisting the help of a friend or stranger.

But Mr. Looney said he thinks the number of accessible machines will rise in the next year as costs fall.

Diebold's new ATMs will cost more than traditional machines, but less than existing ones.

Daniel Goldstein, a Baltimore attorney representing the federation, said after the group filed suit, Diebold President and Chief Executive Officer Walden O'Dell called to negotiate, "a very unusual and very admirable response under the circumstances."

Mr. Maurer said other ATM makers have not been so cooperative, and said his group may resort to more suits in the future.

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