Currency changes to aid blind slow to take shape

Effort to make US currency readable to the blind shifts to apps, bill-readers


In the Treasury Department's long struggle to make America's same-size currency readable for the nation's 6.7 million blind and visually impaired consumers, touch has lost out to technology.

The original mission to redesign dollar bills envisioned adding tactile features to currency, but that's now on the back burner. It turns out that designing a note that can be tactilely denominated without a) wearing out or b) jamming the nation's ATMs and vending machines is a lot harder than it looks.

Effort to make US currency readable to the blind shifts to apps, bill-readers

Instead, bill readers -- either as stand-alone devices or incorporated into cellphones as an app -- have become the favored tactic for increasing readability, along with one old-fashioned idea: making the numbers bigger.

First, some background: Six years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals, ruling in favor of a lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind (ACB), found that currency printed in the same size and texture discriminates against the blind. It fell to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to figure out how to provide the blind with "meaningful access" to the nation's homogeneous greenbacks.

Working with input from the nation's blind organizations, BEP came up with a three-pronged strategy to make currency accessible to everyone:

  1. Big, bright numbers: The addition of large, high-contrast numerals began with the redesigned, plum-colored $5 in 2008 and the gold-colored $100 in 2013. Subsequent redesigns will follow on all currencies except the $1, as the Treasury is prohibited by law from updating it.
  2. Bill readers: BEP began distributing its free iBill currency readers at conferences last summer. It expects to distribute between 100,000 and 500,000 over the next three years. In addition, BEP also rolled out its free EyeNote app for smartphone users.
  3. Tactile notes: Despite surveying various techniques (embossing, intaglio printing, etc.) and studying how other countries have made their currencies accessible (different sized notes, holes, notches, raised features), BEP has yet to decide on a tactile feature. As a result, it has extended by 15 months its original deadline to choose one until March 2015. As a result, the debut of the first tactile notes -- likely the lesser-used $10 bills for starters -- is not expected until after 2020.

For ACB executive director Melanie Brunson, the lack of a solution she can feel by hand is frustrating. "The bill readers are progress, but they're not the be-all and end-all," she says. "If 187 other countries around the world can do this, why in the world can't the United States of America? That's our concern."

Mission: Make the dollar visible

When progress toward the all-important tactile currency stalled, the Governmental Accountability Office was called in last spring to check it out. John Shumann, the GAO assistant director who led that study, discovered there is more to adding texture to U.S. currency than initially meets the eye.

"Because U.S. currency is among the most widely used worldwide, one of the things we heard, particularly from the Federal Reserve, is that they have not seen a tactile feature that would be effective throughout the life of a U.S. note," he says. "Our notes are lasting longer and longer over time here -- the $100 is about 15 years and the $5 about five years -- and what they're trying to do is find the tactile feature that would survive as long as the note's life cycle."

He adds that whatever tactile feature is forthcoming, it will inevitably piggyback on the primary reason that U.S. bills are redesigned: to prevent counterfeiting. "As a country, we don't redesign currency at a specific interval or to make changes like this; it's always based on counterfeiting," he explains.

While BEP hasn't yet settled on exactly how it will attach texture to our greenbacks, Shumann says it has decided on where that texture will be located.

"The sense is that the feature should be somewhere along the top of the bill so that a blind person opening their wallet would be able to put their fingers on a bill and tell its denomination," he says.

The GAO noted plenty of concern from the Federal Reserve over the potential cost to incorporate a tactile feature and the banking and vending industries over their outlay to adapt to the new notes. The ATM industry estimated its potential costs could run between $1.3 billion and $1.8 billion for equipment changes alone and $600 million to $3.4 billion for additional transportation costs.

"Depending on the end result, it might be something as simple as a software change or as difficult as physically changing the equipment on every ATM in the country," says Shumann. "It could potentially change the way everything is handled. For example, instead of being able to stack 1,000 bills, maybe you could only do 980."

It was that very scenario that led BEP early on to scrap any changes to the physical dimensions of U.S. currency.

If 187 other countries around the world can do this, why in the world can't the United States of America? That's our concern.

-- Melanie Brunson
ACB executive director

Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, admits he's not surprised that the tactile feature is giving the feds fits. Having tried without success to feel the raised denomination dots on worn Canadian bills, he says durability should be a top priority.

"We understand the challenge; it has to be something that's going to last," he says. "There's no use doing this if what you have isn't going to last over the life cycle of the bills."

Danielsen has nothing but praise for the work BEP has done to make bill readers and smartphone apps available to the blind for free. But as valuable and popular as the technologies have been, he says they're rarely used where they're needed most: at the point of sale.

"Even those of us who are using the iBill or a smartphone app don't do that when we're standing in line at the checkout counter. No blind person I know does that at the point of sale. You use it when you have the leisure to do so to organize the money you have," he says.

He says he'll know immediately that tactile cash works when he no longer holds up the grocery line.

"The only advantage to a tactile feature is if you can reach into your wallet or purse and find what you need without having to go through this whole protocol of organizing your bills in advance. If that's not what we end up with, then the whole exercise wasn't worth it."

See related: Apps begin to give blind access to touch screens

Published: November 4, 2014

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