The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us


300 Plaza Centre One
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0010; fax (319) 384-0024

Release: Dec. 20, 2002

UI law students help test downtown ATMs for usability, accessibility

An audit of downtown Iowa City ATMs by students in the UI College of Law Legal Clinic has shown that many of the machines must be improved before people with disabilities can fully access and use them.

Student legal interns in the UI Legal Clinic, working with members of the Johnson County Coalition for Persons with Disabilities, tested nine ATMs at banks and stores downtown on Nov. 18 to determine how well they met minimum standards laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. Mitch Glende, a UI law student and leader of the project supervised by clinical professor Len Sandler, gave the ATMs generally average scores.

"Most ATMs met the minimum height and reach specifications, but the audit uncovered many other barriers to use," said Glende. "For someone using a wheelchair, there is ample room to approach and operate the machines at most locations, but persons with vision impairments can use only one machine in downtown independently." That ATM provides audio instructions through headphones provided by the bank, which enables people who are blind to use the machine without anyone's help.

The UI students and Johnson County Coalition decided to focus on ATMs because they've become the primary method people use to get cash from banks at home or on the road. Unfortunately, many of them are designed in such a way that people with disabilities find it difficult, if not impossible, to access their accounts or withdraw or deposit money. Among the difficulties that showed up in the audit: keypads, screens and money discharge slots that were too high to be used by people in standard size manual wheelchairs; video screens that were tilted up, making it impossible for a person in a wheelchair to see and operate the controls; cluttered areas around the ATM that made it difficult for people in wheelchairs or mobility aids to get to the machine; lack of voice output to allow persons who are blind to complete a transaction; and Braille instructions that were incomplete and often didn't mention that the bank may charge a fee for use of the ATM.

"One machine had a trash can in front of it and a fire extinguisher on the wall next to it, making it impossible for a person using a wheelchair to get close enough to use it," Glende said.

The ATM that got the highest score was at the new Wells Fargo branch on Dubuque Street, he said. It was the only machine downtown that had headphone jacks and provided instructions in digital voice audio that can be used by people who can't see the keypads, easily comprehend written instructions or read Braille.

"The Coalition members who helped us test the machines had vision, mobility and physical impairments; they had no problems completing transactions at Wells Fargo," Glende said.

Glende said the team soon would notify the banks that own the ATMs of the survey's findings and the clinic's recommendations for improving usability and accessibility. "Most banks have at least made an effort to make their ATMs accessible, so we know they're interested in providing services to disabled persons," he said. "We want them to realize the importance of making their ATMs more accessible and work with them to improve accessibility even further. Often, a simple change in design or technology is all it takes."

Glende said the Clinic and Coalition would conduct another audit of ATMs in downtown Iowa City and other locations this spring and then share their checklists and other materials with advocacy groups nationwide.

UI law students Todd Prichard and Michael Muilenburg also participated in the study.

In the past, the Clinic and Coalition have conducted accessibility audits at Coral Ridge Mall, the New Pioneer Co-op, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Hickory Hill Park, and other business and government facilities. It is one of many disability-related projects offered at the law school.