Quad Kryptonite: ATMs

Between the general inaccessibility of the world, vis a vis being a wheelchair user, and my lack of voluntary manual dexterity due to being a quadriplegic, there are a litany of things I consider “quad kryptonite.” Everyday things that just cause extra challenges. ATMs can be one of those things.

Handling money itself was a skill I had to relearn as a new quad in rehab. While staying in two rehab facilities for four and a half months post-SCI in the summer and fall of 1996, countless people sent get well type cards. Every now and again some included money, which went into an envelope. Since I rarely ventured out into the public I had no use for money for the most part. In fact, it wasn’t until my last three weeks at Craig Hospital that I started dipping into the stash in that envelope and making some semi-regular trips to the convenience store in the facility. The first time I went I was nervous because it was a solo trip that involved money and a transaction in public post-SCI. I think I bought a bottle of Coke, but I left relieved that it went smoothly and I was proud for doing it myself-just one little aspect of gaining more independence back then. Next thing you know I was heading there almost every other day buying soda and snacks (usually Pringles for some reason). It was also a bit of a therapeutic adventure leaving my room and going from the transition-to-home residence portion of the facility to the convenience store because it involved two elevator rides, a skyway, and a few block’s worth of pushing my manual chair. Those Cokes were well-earned.

After I returned home from rehab, I leaned on either my family or then girlfriend to help me get cash from ATMs when I needed it. More often than not that meant running through the drive-through ATM at my bank. Not having my own means of transportation was a big part of that.

Once I started college, started using my power wheelchair full-time and had my own van to drive myself around my independence soared to new levels. No longer did I need to, or want to wait for help getting cash from ATMs. But it took a bit of hurdle jumping to find some that were easy for me to use.

Using drive-through ATMs wasn’t an option because even if I could reach the machine from my van window, my limited finger use would have made putting the card in the machine, punching numbers, grabbing cash, and pulling the card back out again (without dropping anything) difficult or impossible-especially doing it one-handed.

Therefore, indoor, stand-alone ATMs were the best option. But it had to be the right kind. ATMs with the card slot placed at the top of the machine were out because I couldn’t reach them. ATMs that had the prompt too sunken in rather than more flush to the front edge could be tricky because it is hard to reach in there to get the card back. ATMs that barely spit the card back out are challenging because they don’t leave me with much to grab. Likewise with ATMs that don’t dispense cash far enough to be able to pull it out. And when there is a line behind me and the ATM keeps beeping at me until I can get the card out, I always felt the pressure while I struggled to grab my cash or get my card back with both hands sandwiching them awkwardly. Licking my fingers for extra grip was my go to technique when I was really struggling.

So after all kinds of trial and error with different ATMs all over Eau Claire, WI, I discovered that the most accessible one for me was in grocery store. It had a vertical slot that you slid your card down and there were no worries reaching the card slot or struggling to pull my card back out. The only challenge was not dropping my card in the process of sliding it down the slot. But in all the years I used that machine I didn’t drop my card once. It always gave me a weird rush after every successful card swipe. But the downside was that the grocery store was on the other side of town from where I lived, so every time I needed money I had to drive out of my way to get it.

When I moved to Minneapolis for law school in 2003, I was relieved to find a similar ATM at a co-op about a block from my apartment building. Bonus: it was fee free, which in this day and age is huge. But after a few years of accessible, fee-free ATM bliss, I went to hit the cash machine at the co-op one day and out of nowhere they swapped my familiar, very accessible, card slider ATM with one that you put the card in and pull it out again right away. Putting the card in the slot was no problem but I wasn’t able to pull the card back out fast enough to kick things off. After about a dozen tries and the machine scolding me for being too slow on the draw, I essentially gave up. Reluctantly, I started using a run of the mill ATM at the convenience store across the street with a $2.50 withdrawal fee. After like 5 years of fee freedom, that $2.50 felt like highway robbery. And by and large, that is the only ATM I have used since then.

But just last month, the ATM at that convenience store got swapped out for a new, more modern machine with a pretty pimp touch screen. Of course, the yin to the sweet new touch screen is the yang is that getting my card out is much harder now. So I’m back to licking my two index fingers and wrestling with the machine to get my card back.

Like anything with the quadriplegic lifestyle, it’s all about adapting and figuring out a way to make things work despite the adversity. But man, sometimes ATMs can really be quad kryptonite.

Photo source: mikecogh

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