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Survey faults ATMs for the blind in Boston

Survey finds problems at banks, T stations

This ATM in Boston delivers audio prompts via a headphone jack and works properly.

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

This ATM in Boston delivers audio prompts via a headphone jack and works properly.

Many ATMs and MBTA fare machines in the Boston area cannot be used by people who are blind, despite federal rules that went into effect last month requiring that more of the machines be accessible to the visually impaired, according to a new survey to be released Tuesday.

Consumer World, a Boston consumer website, found that 1 in 4 ATMs it tested in the region could not provide spoken instructions to users via a jack for headphones. And headphone audio was also unusable at nearly 60 percent of MBTA fare machines tested. Those machines produced no sound, or blared the customer’s information, such as a Charlie Card balance, over loudspeakers, infringing on user privacy.

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Advocates for the blind said it is paramount for banks, transit operators, and other organizations to provide a working audio option.

“It is not an acceptable solution or accommodation for a blind person to have to try to find and rely on a friend, stranger, or colleague to read information from kiosks or ATM screens,’’ said Mika Pyyhkala, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. The group estimates that roughly 1.3 million people nationwide are legally blind and millions more have limited vision.

Consumer World said it tested 136 ATMs at 84 locations in Boston and neighboring communities between April 8 and 16.

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The Justice Department, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, recently enacted rules requiring ATM and fare machine operators to make sure at least one machine in each public location is equipped to provide step-by-step spoken instructions whenever a customer plugs in a headphone.

The rules took effect March 15.

Technically, not all the ATMs flagged by Consumer World violate federal rules since they only require one machine per location to offer audio technology.

But blind customers and advocates say it would be ideal for all the machines to be accessible, so users do not have to spend time searching for one.

Of 17 banks and credit unions checked, six financial institutions, including Citizens Bank, had at least one location that appeared to violate the new requirements.

Nearly half of the 36 Citizens Bank ATMs checked at 25 locations in Boston, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett, did not provide proper sound, according to Consumer World. A dozen sites did not appear to have any machines with a working audio option.

“It’s ironic that they advertise so heavily that ‘good banking is good citizenship’ when they have so many machines that are not accessible and appear to violate the law,’’ said Edgar Dworsky, the website’s founder and a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general.

Citizens Bank, the second-largest bank in Massachusetts, said it is reviewing the situation. “Accessibility has been an important priority for us as we have upgraded our ATMs,’’ said spokesman Jim Hughes. “We believe we are compliant with the statute and are continuing to invest in our machines to ensure accessibility for all of our customers.’’

When the technology works, it can make a world of difference, say customers unable to read the screens.

Paul Parravano, who is blind, said he regularly uses the audio features on Bank of America’s ATMs.

“This technology is so damn liberating for someone who has lived most of his life having to rely on other people for bank transactions,’’ said Parravano, 60, who works for MIT and lives in Arlington. “It’s a pretty remarkable thing.’’

The survey also found a smattering of problems at smaller banks, credit unions, and convenience stores, which often have older machines. Consumer World said it did not find any problems with ATMs it tested at Bank of America, Sovereign Bank, and TD Bank, the three other largest banks in the state.

Mika Pyyhkala, president of the National Federation of the Blind, initially had some trouble with a Citizens Bank ATM.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Mika Pyyhkala, president of the National Federation of the Blind, initially had some trouble with a Citizens Bank ATM.

Amy Ruell, a blind social worker from Hingham, estimates that one of every five times she tries to use a Citizens Bank ATM, she has to get someone to read the screen - or just give up. But Ruell said she runs into trouble even more frequently with MBTA fare machines.

About half the time she tries to buy a ticket, she said, she finds the audio is not working properly. Usually she eventually finds a working machine, but the last time she bought a ticket at the Quincy Center T station she missed her train. “It’s trial and error,’’ said Ruell, 58. “It is very frustrating.’’

Consumer World tested 76 MBTA fare machines at 15 locations this month and found only 30 worked correctly.

At five stations - Downtown Crossing (northbound entrance), Ashmont, Wellington, and two entrances at State - none of the machines was fully functional.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA has not received any complaints about the machines in the last six months, partly because most blind riders receive free T passes and do not need to use the fare machines.

But after hearing about Consumer World’s findings last week, Pesaturo said the transit system began testing all 490 machines. He said technicians found most of the machines appeared to be accessible, but 23 percent of the buttons that initiate audio service and 14 percent of the earphone jacks were not working properly.

In many cases, he said the technicians were able to fix problems, such as loose cables, on the spot. In other cases, the MBTA plans to make the repairs soon.

“Please be assured that the MBTA takes ADA compliance very seriously, and we encourage customers to report any issues that require our immediate attention,’’ Pesaturo said.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.
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