The Talking ATM

RBC Accessible ATM, 2016

RBC Accessible ATM, 2016

Accessible or “talking ATMs” are now the norm at most banks across North America, but this was by no means always the case. The first talking ATM in the world was installed October 22, 1997 at a Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branch in Ottawa, Ontario. This was a typical machine produced by the National Cash Register Company that graced many bank locations across Canada and the United States.[1]  What fundamentally changed in 1997 was that the machine was retrofitted with an audio interface designed by a fairly young Ottawa company called T-Base Communications. In addition to this audio interface was a jack that individuals could plug in a set of earphones in order to do their banking. Users were also provided with an additional function that would enable them to black out the screen if desired, so that their financial information remained private.[2]

RBC was heralded as the first commercial bank in the world to take such a step, but the talking ATM was not the bank’s first move towards accessibility. Neither would their efforts emerge from nowhere. In contrast, a more transparent and accessible financial sector in Canada, of which the talking ATM was just one part, was the result of over a decade of activism on the part of people who were blind or partially sighted. Now the taliking ATM and the move toward accessible banking more generally is recognized as a milestone in human rights in Canada. The following episode addresses this history through the perspective of the people who would strive to make this a reality, beginning with two influential Canadian activists, Chris Stark and Marie Laporte-Stark.        

[1] This company was founded by John Patterson of Dayton, Ohio in 1884 as a producer in cash registers. Over the course of the 20th century, the company developed a wide range of accounting devices and business machines. By 1957, it had developed its first computer, and by 1968 its first liquid crystal displays, all milestones on the way to inventing automated teller machines. For more information about the company’s history, please refer to its website, “National Cash Register Company-History”,

[2] Stuart McCarthy, “Blind Banking on New ATMS: Talking Tellers Help Visually Impaired,” Ottawa Sun (23 October 1997); “Royal Bank Makes it Easier for All Clients—Including People with Disabilities and the Elderly—to Access Financial Services Information,” Royal Bank Press Release, Toronto (12 September 1996)