Innovations and Payment Systems

Currency changes slow to aid the blind


Most of the Western world helps the visually impaired by altering bills to make denominations different. The U.S. is now studying the same idea

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Close your eyes. Now count your cash.

Can’t do it? Welcome to the ongoing frustration that 4.4 million blind and visually impaired Americans have always had with U.S. currency. U.S. dollar bills could change size, shape, texture to help blind

Almost without exception, every other country in the world but the United States accommodates its sightless and visually impaired citizens by either printing denominations of different sizes or by altering the surface of the bills with such tactile identifiers as embossed dots, foils, engraved patterns, watermarks or notched cut-outs.

Even though printing currency denominations in different colors won’t directly aid the blind, most countries opt to do that, too, in order to help visually impaired and sighted citizens alike identify their cash faster and easier.

The U.S. greenback stands alone as the only major world currency still invisible to the blind.

Currency changes coming
That’s about to change in the coming weeks as the U.S. Department of the Treasury unveils its vision for a new universal American currency.

The change comes as the result of a decade-long legal challenge mounted by the American Council of the Blind (ACB), an Arlington, Va.-based organization that represents the blind and visually impaired.

In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found that Treasury had discriminated against the blind and visually impaired by printing all denominations of currency in the same size and texture. In effect, the courts found greenbacks in violation of Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits government programs from discriminating against the disabled.

Since then, Treasury and its Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) have been kicking the tires on a variety of remedies suggested in a July 2009 commissioned report, including running the options by readymade blind focus groups at the ACB annual convention.

“The BEP sent a couple of representatives to one of our affiliate conventions in October, and they were soliciting input from convention attendees,” says ACB executive director Melanie Brunson who is blind. “They showed us some paper that had notches or holes in them, some things they had done with foil, and different ways they had created dots on the paper. They are apparently looking at various combinations of those.”

Indeed they were. What they discovered is summarized in this slide show (story continues below):

Slide show: How the greenback might change to aid the blind

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing sent representatives to a meeting of the American Council of the Blind to seek its members’ reactions to potential changes to U.S. currency. Here’s what they were testing, and how the council’s members reacted.


Artwork by Brandy Kesl; animation by Anna Bleker

New $100 bill
The redesign of the $100 bill announced April 21 was under way prior to the Court of Appeals ruling. It boasts an arsenal of high-tech anti-fraud features, including a 3D security ribbon, color-shifting numeral and a watermark of Ben Franklin. Little wonder, given the Benjamin’s reputation as the denomination of choice for counterfeiters.

But like the old Benjamin, the new $100 bill still feels indistinguishable from a dollar bill to the sightless; its lone nod to the visually impaired is an oversized “100” on the transverse site. It may be the last new U.S. currency to defy the sightless when it hits the streets early next year.

It’s not the first time Treasury has explored the issue of universal currency. A 1983 study conducted by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) at the request of Congress concluded that while simply printing notes of varying sizes would solve the problem, “the effects of such a change” — which were never spelled out — “would be monumental.”

Instead, the study recommended electronic currency readers for the blind. BEP subsequently coughed up $50,000 to develop one.

That left the blind with three options: Depend on the balky readers (they’re hit-and-miss on worn notes), continue to organize their money by folding each denomination differently ($1 unfolded, $5 folded widthwise, $10 folded lengthwise and $20 folded widthwise and lengthwise), or depend on the kindness (and honesty) of family, friends, cashiers and bank tellers to keep their cash straight.

Note size does matter
Lawyer Jonathan Simeone, who has been blind since birth, casts his vote for variable sized notes, despite the likely retooling cost to BEP and heavy pushback from the ATM and vending machine industries.

“I know that at the outset it’s the most expensive, but it’s also the most durable; other tactile features that other countries have developed tend to rip or rub off, so you have to be careful which one you use. I think size is a more universal design,” he says.

Karla Gilbride, a blind member of the Massachusetts Alliance of Visually-Impaired Students, says variable-sized notes would open up job opportunities for visually-impaired young people and fight counterfeiting.

There are an estimated 300,000 blind and 4.1 million visually impaired people in the United States. A U.S. government survey sought to measure how they fare in everyday financial transactions. Here’s what 400 of them said:
72%Said they felt rushed during transactions
70%Said they felt vulnerable using currency
62%Gave someone incorrect denominations in the past year
59%Relied on someone at the point of sale to count their change
36%Received incorrect change in the past year
Source: Study to Address Options for Enabling the Blind and Visually Impaired Community to Denominate U.S. Currency, U.S. Department of Treasury, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, July 2009

“One of the latest counterfeiting tricks has been to bleach out $5 bills and print them as $100s,” she says. “You wouldn’t be able to do that if the bills weren’t the same size.”

Alison Roberts, a sighted alliance member, says variable sizes work just fine for the Australia dollar, where notes get longer but no wider. In other countries, notes vary in both length and width, often as the denomination increases.

“Here, we have to buy $300 scanning machines to read currency, and in Australia, they hand people a 35-cent piece of plastic that has notches for the size of each bill so you can compare them,” she says.

Tactile features such as raised dots or intaglio bars can prove problematic for some.

“I’m concerned about the foil feature myself because a lot of the people who have vision loss in this country have it due to diabetes,” Roberts says. “They have a secondary condition called peripheral neuropathy that, combined with sticking themselves in their fingers so often, tend to make their fingers less sensitive.”

In whatever form Treasury ultimately adopts it, Roberts says universal currency will finally allow blind Americans to use money with the same ease as the sighted.

“You can’t pay a babysitter with a debit card,” she says.

And yes, organizations for the blind and visually impaired have been fighting equally hard for universal credit card terminals.

5- to 8-year mission
Treasury’s mission is now clear: Develop a universal currency design to implement on the next bill redesign, likely within the next five to eight years.

When asked how soon BEP might make its universal currency plans known via the Federal Register, spokeswoman Claudia Dickens replied, “Soon. It won’t be long.”

Although it’s been a long time coming, that was music to Brunson’s ears.

“We’re satisfied with the degree of emphasis that this seems to be getting within the Treasury,” Brunson says. “We knew that it would take a while for things to sort themselves out. We would rather that they do it right than be hasty, but we obviously don’t want them to stall either.”

See related: Blind take aim at touchscreen terminals, Glossary of common credit card terms

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