A question gnaws at me. Why are the buttons on those drive-up banking machines identified with braille? –Vox Populi, Baltimore

Because federal regulations require it, wise guy. To be specific, section 4.34.4 of the “ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities” (Appendix to Part 1191, 36 CFR Chapter XI, issued pursuant to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990) says, “Instructions and all information for use [of an automated teller machine] shall be made accessible to and independently usable by persons with vision impairments.” Drive-up ATMs, unlike the walk-up variety, don’t need to be wheelchair accessible, but the rules make no exception regarding accessibility by the blind.

You’re now thinking: Boy, those federal bureaucrats sure are stupid. Don’t they realize a blind person isn’t going to be able to drive to a drive-up ATM? Cecil reserves judgment on the stupidity question, but even if the feds weren’t smart enough to notice this little problem on their own, there were plenty of people who pointed it out for them before the rule was finalized. The American Bankers Association, for one, asked that drive-up machines be exempt from the visually impaired requirement, arguing that a blind person using a drive-up ATM would have to be a passenger, which meant the driver of the vehicle could help with the transaction.

No dice, said the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, reasoning that driver assistance “would not allow the [blind] individual to use the ATM independently.” This may sound like an absurd point of principle, but ATM manufacturers say a fair number of blind people do take cabs to drive-up ATMs, and nobody wants to ask a total stranger to help him get cash out of the bank.

Your question does point to a more serious problem, which other readers have also raised: How the hell is a blind person supposed to use any kind of ATM? Whether the keypad numbers are identified with braille or not, there isn’t any braille translation of the on-screen instructions–without which the machine is useless. Maybe, you’re thinking, the problem isn’t the brainless bureaucrats, but the brainless (or cynical) bankers and ATM builders, who figure a pretense of accessibility will get them off the hook.

But that isn’t it either. At the time the accessibility rules were written there was no agreement on the best way to make ATMs accessible to the blind–and the debate is still going on. More than 50 ideas have been proposed, including a “talking machine,” detailed braille instructions, an automated “bank by phone” setup with a telephone handset and a keypad, and so on. (Sample problem: if you use a “voice guided” ATM, how do you keep others from overhearing?) Another difficulty was retrofitting the thousands of machines already installed.

The bankers and ATM builders argued that the best thing to do was leave the federal rules vague until the industry figured out a practical approach. The not entirely satisfactory solution in the interim has been to (1) mark ATM keypads, input and output slots, etc, with braille, and (2) send braille ATM instruction brochures or audio cassettes to blind bank patrons requesting them. The idea is that while ATM operation varies from machine to machine, people conduct most of their transactions at just a few locations and can memorize the operating sequences for them. The drawbacks of this approach are that you have to know that the special instructions are available and that you can use only the machines you have instructions for.

Happily, the banks and ATM builders have been reasonably diligent in trying to come up with more accessible equipment, some of which is starting to show up in the marketplace now. About time, some say. “We don’t want to see information technology [e.g., ATMs] become the new curb,” says Elga Joffee of the American Foundation for the Blind. “There’s certainly no reason to squelch evolving technology. I just wish they’d hurry up and evolve it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.