Blind Advocacy for Accessible Technology Has Rich California History

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This is a post about some of the history of accessible technology in California. October 10 –16 is Disability History Week in the state. People who are blind have worked hard to make technology more accessible. The first Talking ATM in the U.S. was installed in California. The first bank to make changes to its website for people with disabilities was also in this state. California had the first law requiring keys so blind people can pay with a debit card. San Francisco had the first big agreement about traffic signals that help the blind community. [Back to post about history of technology advocacy in California]

Disability history week

October 10 – 16, 2010, has been designated by the California legislature as the state’s first ever “Disability History Week.” The official designation is the result of disability community advocacy efforts spearheaded by “Youth Organizing! Disabled and Proud”, a project of the the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.

This historic week provides a welcomed opportunity to look at the history made by blind advocates and their organizations in California as part of the on-going push for accessible information and technology. (New history will be made the Friday before Disability History Week, when President Obama is scheduled to sign the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act of 2010.)

This post contains aspects of California’s accessible information and technology history that the Law Office of Lainey Feingold, and co-counsel Linda Dardarian, has been involved with. I welcome hearing about the history of other advocacy efforts to bring accessible information and technology to the State of California.

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California’s Talking ATM History

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of the California Council of the Blind, its members, others in the blind community, and other disability rights advocates, the first Talking ATMs in the United States were installed in California in 1999. The very first Talking ATM in the U.S. was installed in San Francisco City Hall in early October of that year.

The audio features in the first Talking ATM were built into a San Francisco Federal Credit Union ATM by Len Fowler, an employee of the Canadian accessibility company T-Base. A few weeks later, Citibank installed the country’s first touchscreen Talking ATM in downtown Berkeley and four other locations. Wells Fargo and Bank of America followed not long thereafter. Today, thanks to these early California efforts there are estimated to be more than 100,000 Talking ATMs in the United States.

Often lost in the big-picture history of Talking ATMs are the many many blind individuals and others who met with banking staff, tested ATMs in labs and on the streets, reviewed scripts (in both English and Spanish) and provided extensive and detailed feedback on how to make the new technology truly usable and accessible. An article detailing the specifics of those individuals and their contributions must wait for another day, but here I would like to mention one unsung hero of the Talking ATM effort who died in 2009.

Scott Luebking, among other things a founder of Berkeley’s Computer Technology Program, was not blind, and his official obituary never mentioned his Talking ATM contributions. But as one of the consultants to Linda Dardarian and me while we negotiated the early Talking ATM agreements, Scott’s help was invaluable. Scott and I would meet at Berkeley’s Cafe Roma and he’d explain in the greatest detail the fine points of ATMs, their underlying computer programs, and key issues of usability for people with a wide range of disabilities. He accompanied us to meetings in the Talking ATM lab of a major financial institution, and asked hard questions that ultimately made the Talking ATMs better. Scott was part of the Talking ATM history that is being recognized here. Read the San Francisco Chronicle obituary of Scott Luebking.

Resources to Learn More about the History of Talking ATMs in California

More California History: Accessible Websites, Accessible Pedestrian Signals, and Other Accessible Information and Technology

Accessible Websites

California blind advocates pioneered more than Talking ATMs. In 2000, the California Council of the Blind and other Californians with visual impairments signed an agreement with Bank of America addressing the accessibility of the bank’s web site. This was the first agreement in the United States in which a large financial institution agreed to make its website, including its on-line banking platform, accessible to people with visual impairments.

Alternative Formats for Print Information

In 1999 Wells Fargo (when it was primarily a California bank) agreed, also in an agreement with the California Council of the Blind (CCB), to provide banking information in Braille, Large Print and audio to customers who cannot access print information. This too was an historic “first” on the road to accessible financial information. CCB and its members went on to negotiate similar agreements with other California banks, including Bank of America and Union Bank of California.

Tactile Keypads on Point of Sale Devices

In 2005, the history of technology and information access made another advancement in California when CCB, along with the American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, signed the first agreement, with Wal-Mart in the United States requiring tactile keypads on flat screen point of sale machines. Similar agreements followed with many large companies, including Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Rite Aid, RadioShack, CVS and Target. Read the press releases about tactile keypad settlements.

Also in 2005 California became the first — and only — state in the country to pass legislation requiring tactile keypads. Read the post on this website about California’s tactile keypad law.

Accessible Pedestrian Signals

In 2007 accessible technology history was also made in California with the signing of the first comprehensive agreement by a major U.S. city to install accessible pedestrian signals (APS). The agreement was negotiated by the California Council of the Blind, San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the San Francisco Independent Living Resource Center (ILRC) has resulted in over one hundred intersections in the City being equipped with pedestrian signals that provide audible and tactile information making it safer for blind pedestrians to navigate city streets.

To learn more about San Francisco’s historic APS agreement, visit the Accessible Pedestrian Signal Category on this website.

Disability History Week Information

Information about California Disability History week is available on the website of YO! Disabled and Proud, the group that spearheaded the legislative effort. Visit the YO! Disabled and Proud website for more information about Disability History Week in California.

California’s disability history week is part of a national effort to recognize disability history through education and advocacy. To learn more about disability history week in other states, visit the National Disability History Week website. This effort is a project of the Museum of disAbility History.