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ATMs, Accessibility, And Human Needs

Robert Jahoda, a blind man from Pennsylvania, is sole named plaintiff in a batch of lawsuits seeking to force banks to bring their ATMs into compliance with regulations on blind-accessibility issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is, he's trying to make them spend a load of money making sure that if he and others like him want to use the banks' services, they can, even though the banks presumably don't think it's worth the expense -- or wouldn't, except they don't want to be sued.

It's not a trivial expense: a first-rate ATM can cost $50,000; a cheap one, $10,000. And since older ATMs that work just fine for most customers often can't be upgraded to serve the blind, the banks have to replace them.

But if a bank doesn't come into compliance before getting sued, it faces additional expenses, such as an annual fee of $25,000 to a plaintiff's lawyer to monitor its compliance.

A blind person may attract more sympathy than a bank -- that is, a bank's owners and decisionmakers. But if you respond to the "need" of a blind person to use an ATM by forcing all ATM owners to make all their ATMs blind-accessible, you disregard a more fundamental need: the need we all have to direct our efforts to the pursuit of our own values. If offering blind-accessible ATMs contributed to banks' pursuit of their own values, they'd do so without a law to force them, just as they try to put ATMs in convenient locations without a legal requirement to do so. What the ADA does is force them to direct their efforts, at the cost of their own values, to serving politically favored others: in this case, the blind.

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