New Photo ID Card Now Available

Here is some exciting news that may spur some discussion. The McGuinty Government has given Ontarians the ability to apply for an official photo identification card at 21 Service Ontario locations across the province. This government ID card will make it easier for those aged 16 and above who do not have a driver’s license to open a bank account, make travel arrangements or perform other activities that require official ID.

To apply for this card you need to be an Ontario resident, and provide original identity documents with your legal name, date of birth and signature. It costs of 35$ it is valid for 5 years.

The 21 Service Ontario locations can be found here:

10 Windows Keystrokes Everyone Should Know

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Thu, 12/30/2010 - 00:00

There are 1,000s of keyboard shortcuts that can be used when using Windows to do a lot of very cool things.

Lots of people use keyboard keystrokes for a variety of reasons. People who are blind use these keystrokes to use the computer completely without a mouse. People with repetitive strain injuries use keyboard keystrokes & keyboard only based navigation as an alternative method of controlling their computer. Some people use keyboard keystrokes & keyboard based navigation as a preventative approach to avoid future mouse related injuries. All in all, regardless of your motivation or need, keyboard shortcuts are simply a much faster and more productive way to do a lot of things on your PC.

What are the top 10 keystrokes everyone should know when working in Windows?

There are the tried and true keystrokes like cut (Ctrl+X), Copy (Ctrl+C) & paste (Ctrl+V). There are the essential navigation keys like Move to next window (Alt+Tab), move to previous window (Alt+Shift+Tab), close current window (Alt+F4), move to next field (Tab) and move to previous field (Shift+Tab).  There is the F6 key which moves between sections of the windows UI (i.e. in Powerpoint the F6 key moves between the slide list, the slide view and the notes section of the PowerPoint screen).   There are a lot of new keystrokes in Windows 7 that do some cool things like Maximize the current window (Windows Key+Up Arrow) or Restore the current window (Windows Key+Down Arrow). There is the key for accessing the ribbon in the office suite (F10).

Microsoft publishes lists of all the hotkeys that are available in their products, here is a good starting place to learn more about the keyboard keystrokes available: Microsoft Windows 7 Hotkey List

Which keys do you consider the most useful keys that everyone should know?

The Basics Of Picking An Accessible Cell Phone In Canada

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Fri, 11/26/2010 - 00:00

What provider are youlooking to use ? That dictates the options.
Telus and Rogers have the most options for accessible phones

The next question is: how much are you willing to pay?
The least expensive & easiest option is from Rogers who offer the E71-RVI; which is a
symbian phone from nokia. It comes with talks (the screen reader)
pre-installed at no extra cost. On a 3yr plan it's $29 - $79 for the phone,
which is rediculously cheap for this type of offering. See:

The phone is fully featured, offers lots of software and features (i.e.
email, text msging, calling, web browsing...etc). Talks also supports a lot of different bluetooth braille displays.

Be aware that NO carrier will know what you are talking about. If you call rogers for example expect them to tell you they don't sell the phone anymore
or something like that. This isn't true but does take a bit of fighting to
resolve. (based on past experience)

The next least expensive option is a phone that runs "android" (google's
cell phone operating system). There are a number of companies that make
android phones (htc, motorola, etc) ...

These phones have a free screen reader available and a number of add-ons
that provide fairly decent access at no additional cost. Although, you do
need to manually install them from the app store. The GPS is particularly
good on an android phone. There are a lot of different shaped phones, so I
would suggest going and having a look at them at a telus or Rogers store. One piece
of caution: make sure you get a phone with a dedicated answer button on it.
i.e. avoid the Nexus or Galaxy model which don't. Also be aware that you will require sighted assistance install the screen reader from the app store. This software free (as are a very large # of the apps for this phone, which runs an open source operating system).

The next option is an apple iphone (3gs or 4g); which at no extra cost has abuilt in screen reader. Some ppl find the touch screen interractions of the iphone a little foreign but it is totally usable without sight. Be aware that the battery life on the iphone is extremely short and they do want you to buy it with a fairly expensive package so this might not be an option for some ppl.

Feel free to use my contact info if you would like to discuss further  

The epidemic of inaccessible point of sale devices in Canada

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Sat, 09/25/2010 - 00:00

Blind consumers may soon no longer be able to do many tasks and activities that they currently perform. Simple tasks like going shopping for groceries, clothing, paying for lodging or travelling may soon be a task that is more difficult or may times impossible unless they are willing to put themselves at a far greater risk for theft, fraud and financial ruin. This effects over 3 million blind, low vision & other print disabled Canadians.
Touch Screen point of sale (POS) devices are becoming more and more of an issue for blind consumers. Many companies are implementing these smooth surface systems where the icons/buttons and text change from screen to screen; but have no tactile feedback for a blind consumer & provide no auditory information about the charge you are accepting. This epidemic is hitting grocery stores, electronic stores, clothing stores, restaurants etc. It has even hit Canada Post who use a touch screen system for these items. This effectively means that a blind person would not be able to pay for an item with their credit card or bank card through interrac. This type of scenario could create a situation where blind folk become highly valuable targets to rob; because you know they are likely to have a larger than average amount of cash on their person because they can't pay for things any other way and you may really score if they were carrying the cash to pay for a big ticket item like a TV or computer. If you can’t independently verify that you are being charged the correct amount or expected amount, you are liable for the cost that gets authorized through this POS system and no bank or credit card company will help you.

The banks and credit companies use a PIN system for authentication. If you can't use the POS device, you can't independently enter your pin. If you give your PIN to another person you are now giving them full independent access to your finances and they have the power to clear you out financially and you are liable and no bank or credit card company will help you. So scenarios’ where you get a friend, buddy or store employee to enter the PIN for you are not an option.

The barrier is not a technology barrier it is a lack of will, oversight or regulation. Code factory on windows mobile, Google on android and Apple have all shown that a touch screen device can be made accessible using existing technology. Apple has proven that touch screen can be made extremely usable by blind people. Every iphone/ipod/ipad has a built in touch screen interface for none sighted users. This interface is non-obtrusive and a single device can be toggled on and off easily so the device can be used by both sighted and non-sighted in a single accessible device.
A working group of blind Canadians is being assembled to advocate for a change. Please email me if you are interested in joining.
Also, EJ has posted some great resources and supplemental information here:

Screen Reader Access To SharePoint v2003-v2010

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Tue, 06/01/2010 - 00:00

As many screen reader users have found out the hard way; Microsoft's SharePoint service is not very screen reader friendly. It can be navigated, but is clearly not understandable for your average user. Microsoft's apparent lack of interest in adhering to w3c standards further complicates the situation. Despite this, many of us have to use SharePoint in our daily work. So with that said, I am writing this article to share with other screen reader users some tricks, tips and general information I've gathered over time while working on the "SharePoint issue". I have primarily been working with the 2003 and 2007 editions of SharePoint, but most of these items hold true with 2010.

1. Fix the site itself

Before I show you some of the work-arounds, I want to quickly talk about SharePoint deployment. A company that just installs SharePoint on a server and leaves it with all the default settings and out of the box configuration is deploying an extremely less than accessible SharePoint site. Microsoft themselves point to the Accessibility Kit for SharePoint (AKS) - which is a free set of templates and other items to make SharePoint more accessible. There is also the Unofficial Accessibility Kit for SharePoint (UKS) which attempts to improve the accessibility shortcomings of the AKS. Neither of these fixes come with SharePoint or are installed by default so this is something that will need to be done by your SharePoint Administrator and may constitute a fair bit of work if they have already deployed SharePoint, developed their own templates or customized it at all. However, these SharePoint improvements go a long way towards making SharePoint more usable.

2. The SharePoint "more accessible mode"

SharePoint has implemented a setting that users can turn on to make the interface "more accessible". A user changes their preferences for their own profile under SharePoint and turns this on, see the following article to learn more and get instructions on how to turn the "More Accessible Mode" feature on: .

Rather than do things right the first time in the main interface, Microsoft has elected to build this kludgy secondary interface for SharePoint. If you have customized your SharePoint interface or added any of the third party add-ons or items to your SharePoint server, this mode is often broken, non-functional or these add-ons are completely unusable.

3. Mobile Device Mode

Many screen reader users have highlighted that because the mobile mode for SharePoint is more simplified and contains fewer controls, items and elements on the screen that the mobile mode is far easier to learn and use than the default SharePoint interface. The "mobile" mode was designed for cell phones and other mobile devices to access SharePoint on their smaller screens. Be aware though that it still has a number of shortcomings and removes some functionality you may need to access in the main interface.

The "mobile interface" is a feature that needs to be enabled on the server by the administrator of your SharePoint site. See this link for instructions on how to Configure SharePoint Server for Mobile Device Access

Once this is enabled, you can use the mobile experience on a desktop web browser. To do this, go to the address bar, hit end to get to the end of the URL for the current page of a SharePoint site and paste the following text: ?mobile=1 at the end of your url. This can be done for a document, home page, web part page, wiki page, list view page, list item details/edit/new form page, or Search center page. This does not work for all pages/lists/documents but can be a convenient workaround for an overly complex page.

4. Accessing SharePoint with Windows Explorer

You can access using Windows explorer all the files and folder structure of a SharePoint's file repository as if it were just another shared drive. While this is perhaps the most technical workaround, it is also the workaround that tends to work the best and provide the most screen reader friendly way of accessing and working with a SharePoint server that is being used as a document repository. You can use Windows Explorer to read, edit, delete or add files assuming you have the permissions on the SharePoint site to do so. This method of using SharePoint also does not have the full functionality of using the site natively and you may find that your area is using SharePoint for more than just a document library and that those additional items cannot be accessed through Windows explorer. However, with that said, it is far more efficient to navigate the document library with a screen reader from within Windows Explorer.

Figure 1 Screenshot of a sharepoint site opened in Internet Explorer

Figure 1

Figure 2 Screenshot of the same sharepoint site as displayed in Figure 1 but opened in Windows Explorer

Figure 2

There are two ways to get the URL for use within Windows Explorer for accessing a SharePoint document library. Both require you to first go to your SharePoint site in Internet Explorer and navigate to the library (page) you wish to access.

4.1 The Easy Way of Getting the URL for use within Windows Explorer

While on the page for the document library you wish to access within Windows explorer, find the Actions link and then find the Open in Windows Explorer link. Hit alt-d to get to the address bar and copy the URL you find there. With this address or URL, you can return to the site at any time by just loading Windows Explorer and pasting this URL.

4.2 The Manual Way of Getting the URL for use within Windows Explorer

Even though it's a more manual process and requires more technical knowledge, I'm going to show you the 2nd way of getting the document library address to paste into Windows explorer because sometimes the previous method is not visible. So, alternately, you can get the address of the site from the address bar. For my example, the following URL was grabbed from the address bar of a SharePoint site I have to use occasionally.

Example URL:


Deconstruct the URL as follows:

  1. remove http:
  2. replace all slashes with backslashes
  3. remove the last few levels below the folder of the repository
  4. add \Documents to the end of the URL

You should have a URL that looks something like this:


Paste your new URL into Windows Explorer's address bar to access the SharePoint document library.

4.3 Creating a drive mapping with the Windows Explorer URL

You can then add the Windows Explorer URL we grabbed in the previous sections from Windows explorer as a mapped drive letter by Choosing Tools, Map Network Drive, paste the path copied earlier into the "folder" field and tab to the drive selection field and select the drive letter you wish to use. Tab to and press enter on the OK button and you will now have a mapped drive to a document library that you can then access and use just like any other drive you use in Windows

5. Final Thoughts

As you can see above, none of the "work arounds" are ideal and none of them will work all the time for all situations. It is therefore recommended that you communicate the importance of accessibility to your IT area, that they communicate this as an important business requirement of your organization to Microsoft and urge them to fix the "out of box" experience for everyone by making their offering fully W3C and WCAG AAA compliant right from the out-of-box deployment. Until that day comes, I hope that you have found these work arounds and tricks to be useful and that you will share any additional tricks you have found for working with SharePoint with a screen reader in the comments below.


Why Serotek?

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Thu, 07/23/2009 - 00:00

The Top Five Reasons Why System Access (SA), System Access Mobile Network (SAM Net) and Serotek are leading the industry in innovation:

  1. Community

    : Serotek unlike many of the AT manufacturers are working to build more than just a basic screen reader (something in my opinion the market is already flooded with); it is actually attempting to create a community in it's most modern of senses. From the online chat sessions to the active user forums, the moment a user logs into the system they really feel a part of "something". This feeling of "being part of something" is exactly what defines a community and Serotek takes every opportunity to engender this in every aspect of the way it does business and take advantage of the latest technologies and services in the mainstream. For example, a user with a desire to socialize can go into their online system they dub "the socializer" and get connected through a variety of mediums (such as voicechat, twitter, facebook, forums, pdocsts, news etc) to discuss with others just about anything imaginable. and get informed about just about anything that interests them. A user who has a problem or technical question can pose it on the user forum or connect to the voice chat and get a prompt response from staff or other users in that same community. Staff & members of this community can even remotely help each other using the remote control features of the system access system; which allows them to remotely share a users' pc and deliver tech support, training or demonstrations. Members help members, members share with members and members learn from the community.

  2. Independence

    : With three alternatives or options at their disposal, a user of system access with the full package can use any windows based pc without any assistance from any sighted colleague. Gone are the days of a "special pc, for special people". An SA user can even make use of communal PCs such as those you would find in a business center, library or kiosk. SA users have even performed fully independent installations of windows without sighted assistance, using just a copy of SA on a U3 USB drive &an unattended edition of Windows XP, something that is completely unimaginable and impossible with any other commercially available screen reader.

  3. Cost

    : It's easy to make a screen reader, but it's hard to make a good screen reader; and unfortunately many people have to choose the more expensive products in order to meet their needs. Buying a good screen reader on the windows platform isn't cheap. Some products can cost almost two thousand dollars Canadian. System Access costs from about $200 for the netbook version of the license and to about $800 Canadian for the fully loaded version with all the perks, It works with all the most common applications used on a windows PC, such as: Microsoft Office (word, excel, outlook, etc.),skype, media player, internet explorer and so many other applications. System Access performs as well and in many cases better than the other windows screen readers out there when using it to browse the web, They were the first commercial screen reader to work on the x64 platform and they already support windows 7

  4. Software Maintenance

    : As a System Access user, You always have the latest version of the screen reader running on your pc as it self-updates before it finishes loading. There is no cost of maintaining the tool and no cost for upgrades. All other commercial screen readers charge a several hundred dollar service maintenance cost for upgrades. If windows updates software such as internet explorer a user often has to upgrade their screen reader in order to continue to use or make use of the features that are new in the product. For example, a friend of mine just recently for security reasons was forced by his IT area to upgrade his copy of firefox. By doing so he found out the current version of his screen reader was no longer working properly with it. He called the company and was told he needed to pay for an upgrade to the latest version of their screen reader in order to gain back that functionality. This might be an acceptable practice for mainstream software where you don't depend on the tool in order to be able to use your pc, but is unacceptable because this type of practice essentially holds the user's pc for ransom

  5. Inclusion & empowerment

    : In the corporate, education & IT world, Serotek products have bridged the gaps in a number of areas to allow many types of jobs to be attainable that otherwise would not be achievable for persons with disabilities. . Their "accessible event" tool has allowed persons with disabilities to actively participate in collaborative document creation activities, staff meetings, videoconferences, presentations, webinars and , training courses by giving them access to material in real time that otherwise would leave them left out. Their remote incident management solution has given blind and low vision individuals the opportunity to deliver and receive remote tech support and remote training when they otherwise might be left stranded or unable to perform some of the tasks of their job. Their remote access manager solution and system access on a U3 key has allowed IT service areas to hire persons who are blind or low vision as helpdesk and support staff.

It has been a long time since we have really seen innovation in the AT industry, I for one as a blind consumer am looking forward to the continued innovation that Serotek has been introducing into the mix and look forward to the next set of tricks they have up their sleeves.  

Modern Multiple Format Production & The Role Of DAISY

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Sat, 07/11/2009 - 00:00

Who needs alternate formats?

While a bit general in nature, here are some examples:

  • Readers who are blind or have low vision, require one or more of the following formats depending on their needs & the usage of the material, may require: Braille, electronic text, audio or large print
  • Readers with various types of reading based, language based, writing based or learning disabilities, require one or more of the following formats depending on their needs & the usage of the material, may require: Electronic text, audio or a dual text+audio synchronized presentation
  • Readers with physical disabilities who cannot turn a page, require one or more of the following formats depending on their needs & the usage of the material, may require: Electronic text or audio
  • Etc…

Current Multiple Format Production

Here is a look at how currently multiple format production is done in Canada with respect to textbooks (for the most part):

  • an organization creates the content
  • Prepare it for it's printed form by prettying it up, adjusting layout and other details,
  • The material is published, printed than sent off for sale
  • A request for an alternative format occurs (likely by a student)
  • If it's a Braille request:
    • The binding is torn out, the pages are scanned, ran through an optical character recognition engine, a human then reads through the material correcting errors and fixes up errors and removes headers or footers from the material
    • A Braille transcriptionist runs it through Braille translation software and fixes it up
    • The Braille is printed and sent out
  • . If it's a large print request:
    • The binding is torn out, the pages are scanned, ran through an optical character recognition engine, a human then reads through the material correcting errors, fixes up errors, removes headers or footers from the material and adjusts the material so it fits on a page with the new font size.
    • The Large print material is printed and sent out
  • If it's an Audio request:
    • Option 1:
      • The binding is torn out, the pages are scanned, ran through an optical character recognition engine, a human then reads through the material correcting errors and fixes up errors and removes headers or footers from the material
      • The text is run through document reading software and passed through a text to speech engine to generate audio files
      • The files are burnt to an audio CD and sent out
    • Option 2:
      • A person with a microphone reads the material and records it
  • If it's a Synchronized Text+Audio request:
    • The binding is torn out, the pages are scanned, ran through an optical character recognition engine, a human then reads through the material correcting errors and fixes up errors and removes headers or footers from the material
      • The text is run through software and passed through a text to speech engine to generate synchronized Text+audio files
      • The files are burnt to a CD and sent out

There are a few important elements to observe in the above explanation:

  1. A number of the very time consuming activities like scanning, ocr and text fix-up would not be present if the material was retained in electronic form or produced prior to publishing the source material
  2. Many of the steps for generating the various formats are common or similar and could be done once at the time of any alternate format request
  3. If the electronic form of the various formats are retained it would facilitate responding to another request for the same format or the creation of other formats

What is Daisy

Daisy is a set of standards that produce a digital book.

Daisy is not a device or medium but rather a format. Daisy can be burnt to a cd, copied to a media card, downloaded from the internet or delivered in other ways. A daisy book can be paired with other types of content or distributed with other material (i.e. a cd could contain software, a printable pdf manual, a printable Braille manual and a Daisy version of the manual). There are various versions of the daisy standard and these versions are designed to be compatible with any newer versions that come out. The descriptions below cover the Daisy 2.02 Standard for two reasons.

1) it is the most widely available and supported format at present.

2) other versions of the daisy specification aren't quite as straight forward to explain in the way they are described in the standard but do follow the same general groupings as those of the 2.02 standard..

The Daisy 2.02 standard allows for the creation of 6 different types of digital book. These 6 types are:

  • Type 1: Full audio with Title element only
  • Type 2: Full audio with Navigation Center = w/two-dimensional structure
  • providing both sequential and hierarchical navigation. In many cases, the structureresembles the table of contents of its print source. This is the format that the CNIB produces is audio books in. The CNIB books have a title and chapters
  • Type 3: Full audio with Navigation Center and partial text: This is a DIGITAL BOOK with structure as described above, as well as some additional text. (Ie: index, glossary, table of terms) The audio and existing text components are synchronized.
  • Type 4: Full audio and full text: This is a DIGITAL BOOK with structure and complete text and audio. The audio and full text are synchronized. This type of production may be used to generate Braille and other formats.
  • Type 5: Full text and some audio: This is a DIGITAL BOOK with structure, complete text, and limited audio. This type of DIGITAL BOOK could be used for a dictionary where only pronunciations are provided in audio form.
  • Type 6: Text and no audio: This is a DIGITAL BOOK containing a Navigation Center and marked up/structured electronic text only. This file may be used for the production of Braille and other formats.

In Canada, many users assume that when referring to Daisy, that all that is available is an audio book with chapters because that is the only format the CNIB uses at this time. The true power of Daisy lies in the Type 4 format that contains the text, the audio and all of that information synchronized together.

Type 4 BOOK goes far beyond the limits imposed on analog audio books because it includes not just the audio rendition of the work, but the full textual content and images as well. Because the textual content file is synchronized with the audio file, a DIGITAL BOOK offers multiple sensory inputs to readers, a great benefit to, for example, a reader with a learning disability. Some low vision readers may choose to listen to most of the book, but find that inspecting the images provides information not available in the narrative flow. Others may opt to skip the audio presentation altogether and instead view the text file via screen-enlarging software. Braille readers may prefer to read some or all of the document via a refreshable Braille display device connected to their PC or their DIGITAL BOOK player and accessing the textual content file. DIGITAL BOOKs containing a textual content file but no audio material might be accessed via synthetic speech, screen-enlarging software, or a Braille device. The experience is much closer to that of the sighted reader using a print book.

What can you do when you have a daisy 4 book

Here is how the reader who receives a daisy type 4 CD might be able to use it in the medium of their choice:

A type 4 book can be read in braille:

  • With a screen reader & braille display on a PC using the web browser with no additional software player
  • Using a portable braille display & mobile phone or portable daisy reader (i.e. nokia n82 with talks and a braille connect 12)
  • Using daisy hardware or software to read it with their braille display
  • Converting it into printed braille using braille production software such as duxbury

A type 4 book can be read in large print:

  • on a PC in the browser with no additional software required
  • on a PC using screen magnification software
  • printed out using daisy reading software

A type 4 book can be listened to:

  • On a PC using the built in media player
  • On a mobile device such as a cell phone using the built in media player
  • On a portable daisy player, mp3 player or ipod
  • On a portable DVD or CD player that supports mp3 or wma format files
  • On a DVD player

A type 4 book can be read and listened to in synchronized audio and printed text::

  • On a PC using free daisy software such as TPB Reader or commercial daisy software such as Kurzweil 3000 or eclipse reader
  • On a portable Daisy player such as the classmate

In addition to this, if you use Daisy software or hardware players there are a whole host of additional tasks and features available for using, reading and interacting with a type 4 book. A reader can bookmark, comment (in both audio and written form), make notes, highlight segments of text and many other tasks. A reader can move around in the book by chapter, section, heading, page, sentence, or even spell out words.

How hard is it to create a Daisy 2.02 type 4 book:

The short answer is that it is extremely easy. You need the source material (i.e. the word document) and a piece of daisy production software such as IRTI's eclipse writer.

  • You open the source document in the daisy production software
  • detect the headings and page breaks from the document
  • fill in a little meta data associated with the books such as title, author, date of printing etc.
  • Save your book as Daisy 2.02 type 4

If the source material is a well designed structured document than your output will be superior otherwise there may be a lot more you can do to enhance the document or there may be some additional steps related to properly marking up graphics or mathmatical equations, that is essentially it, once you've saved your type 4 book, you can save it, zip it, copy it, upload it or burn it to CD and send it out.


As you have seen in the above material, daisy type 4 offers a lot of extra features with relatively little extra production effort. It is easiest to produce as part of the initial publishing activity and doesn't represent a huge burden on the part of the publisher. If you are producing an alternative format as part of a request for that material, consider adding daisy type 4 to your production process or as part of your contract for it's creation. It can be added with little or no effort and will leave you ready to respond immediately or with a lot less delay when you get a request for a different alternative format or even the same format.



Canadian ATMs Not Required To Be Accessible?

Submitted by Jeffrey Stark on Sat, 07/04/2009 - 00:00

Canadian ATMs that are not run by the banks not required to be accessible?

They are installing an ATM machine at my building at work. It's run by one of these "non-bank" service providers. These types of ATMs are called "white label ATMs" because they are independently operated and not run by a bank. We noticed as we were walking by that there was a headset jack on the front of the machine, so I approached the guys installing the unit and had the following discussion:

"Is this new ATM you guys are installing, accessible?"

"What do you mean?" asks the installer
"Can a blind person use it?"

"The unit itself does support it; but because we are not required to in Canada, it hasn't been enabled" says the installer

I walked away in complete shock. Here they have the technology and capability to provide a more universal level of access to their ATMs and they haven't because they aren't required to. This is a good example of why hoping that businesses will "do the right thing on their own" is clearly not working. This same scenario is all too common and is another example of why when need a "Canadians with disabilities act" at the federal level.

Despite being provided with a less-accessible or in most cases completely inaccessible ATM, blind Consumers are now routinely subject to three levels of fees when they use the "white-label" ATMs that are independently operated by private businesses and found in retail stores, shopping malls, etc.: their regular bank account transaction fees plus the network access fee (also known as the INTERAC fee) plus convenience fees charged by the independent operators (and now by some banks). A customer could end up paying total fees of $5.50 or over 27% in fees on a $20 withdrawal!

Where did the "white-label" ATMs come from?

In 1996 the federal Competition Tribunal made an order that opened up the ATM market to independent operators. Prior to this decision, only banks and other deposit taking financial institutions had been allowed to join the Interac Association and operate ATMs.

"White-label" or no name ATMs are mostly owned and operated by private companies, not financial institutions. Any business incorporated and operating in Canada is eligible for membership in the Interac Association, the non-profit corporation that runs the network which allows for the sharing of electronic financial services and the electronic access to bank accounts. The association also sets the convenience fee that is charged to users of "white-label" ATMs.

The Competition Tribunal's mandate is to maintain and encourage fair competition in Canada. Thus the purpose behind the 1996 decision was to increase competition in the ATM market. However, no-where in their documentation, material, mandate or policies does it even remotely hint at the need for accessible ATMs. This lack of inclusion by design will eventually exclude persons with disabilities from options for an accessible ATM.

The growth of "white-label" ATMs is significant. The Canadian Banking Association points out that whereas five years ago, three quarters of ABMs were owned by banks, now less that half are bank-owned. Of the more than 35,000 ATMs in operation in Canada in 2001, over 18,000 of them were "white-label" ATMs compared to over 16,000 operated by financial institutions.

The "white-label" ATMs are increasingly found in locations with high customer traffic such as retail outlets, shopping malls and gas stations. Their growth is a direct result of the financial incentive for merchants to install these machines rather than bank-owned ATMs. The private ATM companies compensate them for installing the "white-label" ATM at a much higher rate than they receive from financial institution ATMs.

As a result, financial institutions are now in direct competition with the private ATMs. Banks are aggressively competing with independent operators to install ATMs in off-premise (retail) locations. In addition, some of the major banks have entered the no name ATM market and are now imposing that 3rd tier of fees, called convenience fees, on non-clients who use their ABMs at retail locations. This recent development has taken place without the knowledge of the consumer. The EKOS survey found that two out of three Canadians are unaware that banks now own no-name ATMs that charge more than the bank's own machines.

Some financial institutions are even charging convenience fees for non-clients who use the financial institution's own ATMs located at branches of that financial institution! Financial institutions have generally charged non-clients who use their ATMs, only the first and second tier fees: the regular bank account transaction fee plus the Interac fee, not the convenience fee.

Who regulates ATMs?

The problem is that no one really does. White-label ABMs are owned and operated by private companies. They are not under federal jurisdiction because they are not financial institutions. As a result, there is a role that provincial governments could and should be playing in terms of regulating the fees and activities of the privately operated "white-label" ATMs.

Doing something about "white-label" ATMs is important because we have grown increasingly dependent upon electronic banking services. According to Ministry of Finance figures, Canada has the highest number of ATMs per capita in the world. In 2001 Canadians conducted 2.2 billion debit card transactions from over 328,000 merchants, ranking Canada first in the world in ATM use. This has happened, not because consumers demanded it, but because financial institutions have gradually withdrawn from providing personal banking services, beginning with the reduction in bank branch hours, followed by branch closures throughout the country.

We as blind consumers need to direct our concerns politically. We should be asking our provincial and federally elected representatives why this significant and growing segment of the financial services sector has been ignored and left unregulated..

Note: a lot of the figures and general material in this blog posting is a direct quote from an article on white label atms by By Sue Lott – Counsel, Public Interest Advocacy Centre