IP, Technology & Data

This morning news broke about the RNIB‘s row with VISA over the accessibility of ATMs at Olympic Park. Despite the fact that Olympic Park opened for business a month ago, I’m sure that it is no coincidence that the RNIB chose to break this story on day 2 of the Paralympics.

The issue relates to the accessibility features incorporated into VISA’s ATMs.

As a sponsor of the Olympics, VISA is the only provider of ATMs at Olympic venues (although it’s not clear whether the ATMs are in fact white-labelled ATMs provided by a UK retail bank such as London 2012 sponsor Lloyds).

RNIB had apparently been working with LOCOG and VISA for three years in the run up to the Olympics to ensure that the ATMs onsite were accessible. It appears that the ATM hardware deployed had accessibility features such as Braille pads and headphone sockets, but the software needed to enable these features was not installed.

The RNIB threatened VISA with legal action, but withdrew this threat when VISA promised to install the necessary software on two of the ATMs on site. Despite that promise, this work has still not been done.

The law
The relevant law here is the Equality Act, under which service providers have an obligation not to discriminate against people with disabilities in the provision of goods and services. The duty is an evolving duty, meaning that service providers should continue to review the services they provide and the availability of new technology that might enable them to overcome accessibility barriers.

In this case, the ATM is a means of providing access to cash (the service).

On the face of it, given that LOCOG and VISA were fully aware of the issue, it appears that a breach of the Equality Act may have taken place. VISA’s official excuse appears to be that it “ran out of time”, but that’s not a justification open to service providers under the Equality Act.

Both LOCOG and VISA have large resources available to them, and had years to plan for the Games, so it’s hard to see how a lack of time is a credible justification. Given that talking ATMs are widely deployed in the United States (and in smaller numbers in the UK), the necessary software is clearly available on the market.

VISA’s position
VISA still maintains that it has complied with its obligations under the Equality Act.

It’s not clear what VISA’s reasoning is for this. Having been to Olympic Park last month, I’m also pretty sure that there isn’t an over the counter money withdrawal facility which might be more accessible to visually impaired users. VISA may be relying upon the tactile/Braille keypads providing visually impaired users with a level of accessibility, and the fact that talking ATMs are not (yet) widely available in the UK.

Of course, the tactile/Braille pad doesn’t allow the user to “see” what is on the screen (which is the purpose of the audio/headphone facility), meaning that the ATMs are likely to be more difficult for visually impaired users to use. Whether that leads to any visually impaired spectator bringing legal action under the Equality Act remains to be seen.

PR impact
Regardless of whether any legal action is raised, it’s not a good story for LOCOG and VISA.

12 years ago, the organisers of the Sydney Olympics (SOCOG) were successfully sued by a visually impaired Australian man over the inaccessibility of the Sydney 2000 website, and ordered to pay him AU$20,000 in damages. In finding that SOCOG had breached the Australian equivalent of the Equality Act, the Australian EHRC made a particular point of emphasising that SOCOG and its technology partner IBM could not rely upon excessive cost or lack of time as a justification for not providing an accessible website. The case became a landmark case for website accessibility throughout the world.

ATM accessibility is something that has been on the RNIB’s agenda for a number of years, and many banks have committed to improving the accessibility of their ATMs as they refresh their estate. In this case, VISA was deploying new ATMs at a new facility. It was not a case of outdated equipment at legacy sites.

Given the high profile nature of the Olympics and PR damage caused to both VISA and LOCOG by this morning’s story, it’s therefore surprising that this issue wasn’t addressed as a priority when deploying the on-site ATMs.

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