Archive for April, 2009

The ‘Talking ATM’ Is My Invisible Dream Machine.

April 30, 2009

A twitter message alerted me to a milestone I surely didn’t care about a decade ago, but really appreciate now. This post explains how easy it is to use a Talking ATM. People with vision impairment might want to try out this hard-won disability service if not already users. Sighted people can gain insight and direct experience with the convenience of talking interfaces. But, hey, why shouldn’t every device talk like this?

The Milestone: 10 years of the Talking ATM

The history is well told in commemorative articles published in 2003. References below.
Pressure from blind individuals and advocacy organizations circa 2000, with the help of structured negotiators (lawyers), led banks to design and roll out Automated Teller Machines equipped with speech. Recorded audio wav files were replaced by synthetic voices that read instructions and lead the customer through a menu of transactions.

first, I’ll relate my experience and then extrapolate on broader technology and social issues.

My Talking ATM Story


As my vision slid away in 2006, I could no longer translate the wobbly lines and button labels on my ATM screen to comfortably perform routine cash withdrawals. Indeed, on one fateful Sunday afternoon I inserted my card, then noticed an unfamiliar pattern on the screen. Calling in my teenage driver, we noticed several handwritten notes indicating lost cards in the past hour. I had just enough cash in hand to make it through a Monday trip out of town, and immediately called the bank upon return Tuesday. A series of frustrating interactions ensued, like my ATM card could only be replaced by my coming in to enter a new PIN. But how was I to get to the office without a driver or cab fare when I was out of cash?


This seemed like a good time to familiarize myself with audio ATM functions, to lessen risk of having another card gobbled by a temporarily malfunctioning station. With lingering bad feelings about the branch of the Sunday fiasco, I recalled better experience at a different office after my six month saga on reversal of mortgage over-payment. Lesson learned—never put an extra 0 in a $ box and always listen or look carefully at verification totals.


I strolled into the quiet office and asked customer service to explain the audio teller operations. The pleasant service person whipped out a big headset and we headed out to the ATM station. Oddly, most stations are located in office alcoves or external walls. This one was outside the drive-by window to be shared by pedestrian and automotive customers.
ok, waiting for traffic to clear, we went through a good intro. I wasn’t as familiar with audio interfaces at that point in my Vision Loser life but I eventually worked up courage in the next few weeks to tackle the ATM myself with my own ear buds.


Well, 3 years later, I’m a pro and can get my fast cash in under a minute, unless my ear buds get tangled or I drop my cane. First problem is figuring out how to get in line, like standing behind a truck’s exhaust or walking out before a monster SUV. Usually I hang back, looking into the often dry bed of Granite Creek until the line is empty. Next step is to stand my white cane in a corner of the ATM column, feel around for the audio opening hidden in a ridged region, wait for the voice to indicate the station is live, shove in my card, and ready to roll. The voice, probably Eloquence, usually drones into a “Please listen carefully as the instructions have changed…”. Shut up, this will only take a minute and I don’t need to change volume or speed. Enter, type PIN, retype PIN if commonly hit a wrong key, and on to Main Menu (thinking of ACB Radio’s Technology jingle). 6 button down to Fast Cash, on by 20,…100,…, confirm and click, chug comes cash, receipt, and release of card. Gather up receipt, card, cane, and — important — remove ear buds, and I’m on my way.


Occasionally things go wrong. Recently, my receipt didn’t appear and customer service rep and I did a balance request and out spat two receipts, both mine. Kind of nerve wracking as somebody else could have intervened and learned of my great wealth. The customer service rep vowed to call in maintenance on the ATM, but I bet a few more receipts got wadded up that afternoon. Electro-mechanical failures often foil sophisticated software.


Another time, I finished my Fast Cash and waited for card release only to be given a “have we got a good deal for you” long-winded offer of a credit card. I wasn’t sure how to cancel out and still get my ATM card back. since I lecture family on the evils of the credit card, I was fuming at a double punishment. Complaining to the customer service rep inside, I learned sighted people were also not thrilled at this extra imposed step.


Now, to reveal the identity of the ATM, it’s Chase Bank, formerly Bank One, on Gurley Street near the historic Whisky Row of downtown Prescott AZ.
Although I haven’t performed any complex ATM interactions, it’s fair to say I’m a satisfied user and would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone with good hearing unafraid to perform transactions with engines and radios and cell conversations roaring all around. An indoor ATM would be a good step someday but, hey, this is a conservative town, not particularly pedestrian friendly. Mainly I appreciate that I can get my cash as part of a routine just like other people and I don’t even use up extra gasoline waiting in line.

Broader Issues of Talking Transactions

Does the ATM voice induce Synthetic Voice Shock?

I coined the term in Synthetic Voice Shock Reverberates Across the Divides to explain responses I heard about voices offered in assistive technologies to overcome vision loss. Personally, I hated Eloquence when I first heard it demonstrated but I rapidly grew to love my Precise Paul and friends as I realized that (1) the voices really were understandable and (2) I didn’t have any choice if I wanted to keep reading. I now wonder how people like me, slowly losing vision while off the rehab grid, learn about Talking ATM and related services. It hurts to think people give up that one step of independence from not knowing whom to ask or even if such services exist. And supposing someone does step up to an ATM ready to listen, are they tuned in to hearing synthetic speech sufficiently to make an informed choice whether the Talking Teller is an appropriate service for them? Did the Disability Rights movement fight through a decade only to have a generation of drop-outs from oldsters with difficulty adjusting to vision loss, a panoply of technology, and no-longer-young nerves?

Are Audio E-voting and Talking ATM’s Close Cousins?

I have described my experiences in 2008 voting without viewing. The voting device is a keypad like offered by the ATM I use while the voice is a combination of human narrated candidate and race announcements interspersed with synthetic speech instructions and navigation. I found this mode of voting satisfying, compared with having someone read the ballot to and mark for me. However, even my well-attuned ears and fingers seemed to get in trouble with speech speedup and slowdown, which I blame on poor interaction design. Note that many ATM and voting systems have origins in the NCR and Die bold product lines so usability and accessibility research lessons should carry over.

Why aren’t all check-out services as easy as banking?


I buy something at a store and then have a hassle at check-out finding a box on a screen or buttons I cannot see for typing in a debit card PIN. I’ve never understood why I can give a credit card number over a phone without signing but must sign if I swipe it on checkout. And giving a PIN to a family member or stranger isn’t good practice. Sometimes check-out can get really nasty as when a checker wouldn’t let me through because my debit card swiper was only age 20 – it’s my debit card, my groceries, my wine, and I’ll show you a social security age ID card. Geez, now we’re nervous every time we check out a Safeway since Aunt Susan has a short fuse after a tiring shopping session. If only the Point of sale thing talked and had tactile forms of PIN entry. I ask Safeway when accessible check-out will be possible and let them know the store has a visually impaired regular shopper.

Is audio interaction a literacy issue?


We are actually on track to a world where everything talks: microwave ovens, cards, color tellers, security systems, thermostats, etc. Text to speech is a commodity additional feature to onboard processors in digital devices. Indeed, we can hope this feature slips out of the aura of assistive technology into the main stream to enlarge the range of products and capabilities available to everybody. Why shouldn’t manuals be built in to the device, especially since the device is soon after purchase separated forever from its printed material? Why shouldn’t diagnostics be integrated with speech rather than provided on bitty screens hard to read for everybody? How about making screens the add-on features with audio as the main output channel?


Let’s generalize here and suggest the need for a simple training module to help people with recent vision loss get accustomed to working keypads accompanied by synthetic speech. Who could offer such training? I asked around at the CSUN exhibits and haven’t yet found an answer. There are multiple stages here, like producing a book and then distributing to end users via libraries or rehab services. My experience is that social services are hard enough to find and often more available to people who have already suspended independent activities.


The outreach problem is real. Finally, I’d like to express my appreciation to the activists, educators, and lawyers who convinced banking organizations and continue to work on retailers to make my “money moments” conventional and un stressful. The “talking ATM” shows what is possible not only for business but also for the broader opportunities sketched out above. Let all devices talk, I wish.

References on Talking ATMs

  1. Background and excellent overview compiled by Disability Civil Rights Attorney Lainey Feingold>

  2. Blind Cool Tech demos of talking devices

  3. Talking ATM on wikipedia

  4. Swedish choice of Acapella voices for ATMs for more modern sounding speech. Demos available on website.


  5. Chase bank and Access Technologies ATM collaboration


  6. (PDF) 2003 case study of Talking ATM upgrades
    . Bundled features with speech included better encryption and streamlined statement viewing.


  7. The electronic ‘curb cuts’ effect
    by Steve Jacobs


  8. Portfolio of talking information
    based on ATT technology

  9. ‘What to do when you meet a sighted person’ (parody)

Great!! Twitter has Less to See, More to Say and Hear.

April 22, 2009

This post relates my experiences using the micro-blogging system “twitter”. For once, accessibility issues drift into the background and the educational, emotional, and entertainment aspects of the technology engage me in the social media movement. In summary, an undisciplined person can fritter away mountains of time on molehills of information that pop up in the Twitter landscape created by following choices. However, a person with self-directed interests can find bubbling brooks of content pointers and insights with occasional gold nuggets never otherwise revealed. An alternative title might be “Does Twitter make me fitter? or flitter?”

Please, please, explain twitter

First, what’s the “twitter model” of information flow? Blogs have gained popularity because individuals believe their special interests and expertise attract like-minded readers who can contribute feedback and merge to reach higher goals. Let’s admit that it takes courage to make that first blogging step whether for business survival or personal growth. Twitter concentrates the writing and reading into 140 characters per message, roughly a headline, topic sentence, or link reference. The underlying technology builds on the Publish-Subscribe model that you put your information someplace, others find its location, assess its quality and relevance, then add the location to automated systems, dubbed “clients”, to fetch the latest messages. The Twitter lingo is that you “follow” somebody, others “follow” you, and Twitter central facilitates the broadcast of messages by allowing clients to send and receive messages, including its own website twitter.com. The power of twitter also comes from distributing following-follower lists, enabling, in computational thinking terms, symmetric and “transitive relationships”, where “I follow X ho follows Y who follows Z” and “oh, look, A is following me, looks interesting, so I’ll follow A who also follows B, etc.”.

How does a person, sighted or not, use twitter?

Accessibility issues are minimized to only getting past the account sign-up anti-spam CAPTCHA image or audio at twitter.com. since the main functions of using twitter are inputting 140 or fewer characters and links or buttons to handle following activation, user interfaces are simple, non-visual, and enabled by an API (Application Programming Interface) at Twitter Central.


I use two twitter clients. The Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager Version 2 software provides basic capabilities for sending messages, updating the so-called “tweet roll” of messages from people I follow, as well as checking out my followers and followees by profiles and thei follow contexts. A web interface Accessible Twittter.com applies many principles for making web pages easily usable with a screen reader. Another useful interface, Mobile Twitter offers a spreadsheet look, good for fooling bosses and quick to read.

So, how does one get started in twitter?

After getting my account, Twitter Central showed me some highly followed people, one of whom I knew by name, Slate journalist John Dickerson. Then I thought up people I respected from blogs, podcasts, and books, adding Jon Udell, John Batelle, W. David Stevenson, Danah Boyd, Francine Hardaway, and Denise Howell. That gave me a well-rounded expansion of people whom I respected and could trust to follow worthy thinkers and doers. At some point, I believe centered on Accessible Twitter creator Dennis Lembrée of WebAxe podcast brought me into transitive and cyclic lineages of accessibility gurus. Fortuitously, these folks were organizing a “tweetup at CSUN accessibility conference and I was quickly following a few dozen people I didn’t know who were building a community for sharing their blog writings, insights, complaints, and traveling.


On the other side, now with my own account, I had to figure out what to say, personal and professional, more later on this dilemma.

Why twitter makes me fitter

My take on “social media” is that individuals in society need to both maintain their past affiliated relationships, like co-workers, while expanding their options and facilitating personal growth. This gets very interesting when generations, genders, and interests cross traditional social boundaries. My selection of people to follow has one common criterion: independent thinkers, solo proprietors, those who “own their minds” with any company affiliation in the background. I care not a wit for any organizational tricks or complaints. Messages from such people are often like “well, here’s this great insight, but nobody here to tell, except the cat/dog, a good mid-afternoon tweet treat for myself”. More often I see the straightforward “worth reading to learn X, here’s the link”. For me, as receiver, this adds up to a dozen or so tabs and web pages lined up in my browser, kind of a morning clipping service. Since I’m learning about accessibility and assistive technology, I’m getting a daily reading list and lessons from experts whom I trust to know what’s important.


The cross-generational aspects of twitter are fascinating. In physical life, I attend lifelong learning courses and book clubs where, at age 66, I’m often one of the younger members, so story telling extends back before WW II and parents in the Depression (the previous one). Not surprisingly, one sometimes hears grumbling about “those kids and their toys”, which I also co-exist with at home. On twitter, I’m an elder lurker, used to being the invisible older woman, trying to inject my own decades of experience, expecting little interest — “who cares about email in the 1970s?”.


Also intriguing is the cross-over of geographical and technical interests, e.g. learning about Jon Udell’s “Calendar Curation” project, including nitty-gritty technical things I can still understand, if not perform. I also keep up on electronic publishing, government data,Arizona entrepreneurs, and general technology, almost anything except boring past professional organizations and hard to find local connections.


To cite one of those nuggets of gold, my tweet role is currently filled with reports of the Trends at a European conference on accessibility for the Aging. Just hearing the stream of topics provides the collage of technical and social concerns, while I register mentally those slides I want to peruse for my recurring theme posting on vision loss, including advice for care-givers.

How does twitter make me flitter?

One thing I do get better at with age is managing my energy level. The rules are simple. “Add a follower, measure whether you’re at a limit of time or interest, demote something”. Also recognize “context switching takes energy, so confine contexts to current interest”. In other words, you cannot keep up with everything, so must, always, be trimming back. This gets harder when you must delete yourself as a follower of a person you like but don’t need. Sadly, hey, if I have to keep skipping or reading tweets I dislike or don’t care about, I’m soon going to disregard that person, so better drop this relationship sooner. Snip, see you later.


I’m luckily immune to most pop culture, but occasionally do need a dash of heart tugging or mockery or irritation. Ok, I confess, I couldn’t tell you one thing about American Idol but I’m compelled to keep up with Britain talent Susan Boyle phenomenon. Those judges smirking at her age and looks, telling her they’d laughed at her, gets my feminism and ageism ire going. But seeing somebody have a lifetime high moment, and do a fantastic performance, well, that makes me feel ever so human. Don’t tell me the show is rigged.

Twitter for the Vision Loser

I hope you’ve now seen that Twitter is a great match with needs of this Vision Loser, maybe others.

  1. With a text-based technology, there are no complex interfaces to master. Indeed Accessible Twitter is designed with the best practices to streamline reading and writing in Twitter.

  2. The twitter user world, millions of people with varied interests, offer a mixed blend of personal, professional, and avocational content. Find the people you like, the people they like, and you can be on the fringes of ongoing conversations to deepen and broaden your interests. Yes, this is like over-hearing art experts discussing a portrait in a gallery, but what’s wrong with that?

  3. Most charitable organizations are now on twitter, e.g. Red Cross, Lions Club, NFB, etc. Vision-related advocacy cropped in the
    Amazon Kindle publisher guild petitions and protest. VisionAware and Fred’s Head from APH offer a steady diet of news about vision related topics and assistive technology. And this VisionLoser formed her own self-study of the accessibility field from trickle down tweets.

  4. Step out yourself by replying to tweets when you know something relevant. That’s one way to gain followers and enter the community. And start your own follower-ship by invitation and productive posting.

  5. Pay no attention to the million-follower celebrity races unless you dig playing their games. You can find your own playground and make your own acquaintances. And, ugly words like “friend
    “, as in somebody’s name added to a list, is cultural inanity. However, real relationships do build over time by reading blog or twitter thoughts.
    But oh, that very first tweet, like any “first”, can be scary. The prompt is “What are you doing?” which can be translated into now, right this moment? today’s big challenges? for the rest of my life? You can start out personal or think for 2 days, but probably nobody cares either way. In a month or so, you develop your own rhythm and style of posting. That’s where personal growth comes in, as you discover what matters enough to post or withhold, how to condense a though into 140 characters, and integrate twitter information flows into your reading and learning. Twitter is seductive, like writing a journal, and evaluating your goals and progress.

  6. Suppose you succumb to “twitter fritter” and waste scads of time with little return? We all have that problem and need to find our own self-control mechanisms. For me, this is an internalalization of battery drain with intellectual and emotional energy signaling the value of certain communications. Another problem is privacy concern, since you’re giving away your whereabouts and daily routine, but that’s part of what we have given up for a technological society, or formerly living in a small village.

  7. Here are a few general readings:

Follow me on Twitter at slger123