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Changes to currency may help the blind

In 1995, a report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended that U.S. bills be distinguishable by either one or several of these characteristics: size, color or larger numerals.

In response, the BEP incorporated two accessibility changes -- a larger numeral and an infrared feature that was to work with bill readers -- into the currency redesigns of 1996 and 2004. Both features fell far short of enabling the blind to distinguish between bills.

The cost of accessible cash

The 1996 redesign cost the BEP approximately $34 million, of which $26 million was devoted to funding a public education campaign. The total initial cost for the 2004 redesign was $113 million, including $38 million for six new presses and $50 million for a public education campaign.

In court, former BEP director Thomas Ferguson estimated the cost of new printing presses and plates to implement meaningful accessibility features would run $228 million, with another $70 million to $90 million for worldwide public education.

Tom McMahon, senior vice president and chief counsel for the Chicago-based National Automatic Merchandising Association, said accessibility could cost his industry $560 million to change bill-reading software on the nation's 7 million vending machines.

It's Our Money Too, a Boston-based blind advocacy group, says the long-term cost benefits of switching to accessible currency far outweigh the short-term investment.

Alison Roberts, a spokesperson for IOMT, points out that the ACB suit seeks no tactile changes to the $1, which accounts for half of all bills printed. As for the loss to the vending industry, she notes that U.S. vending machine makers regularly equip and service machines in countries with a variety of bill sizes and features.

"People forget that they have to upgrade the vending machines every time they have a redesign anyway," she says.

No more talking gadgets

Blind lawyer Jonathan Simeone, an IOMT member, favors adopting the euro model, which varies both the length and width of the bill -- the larger the bill, the greater its worth.

"I know that at the outset it's the most expensive, but it's also the most durable," he says. "In the long term, you could actually recoup some of that additional expenditure simply by saving ink and paper by making money smaller. If you made the $1 bill smaller, too, you could quite easily save lots of money over the years."

Bills of differing sizes would also help prevent counterfeiting, says member Karla Gilbride, a blind lawyer.

"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."

Accessible currency also would help combat the 55 percent to 70 percent unemployment rate among visually impaired and blind Americans.

"Visually impaired young people who are trying to build a work history can't get a lot of the cashier jobs that sighted people start out with," he says. "This would open up a whole world for them."

BEP spokesperson Dawn Haley would not discuss the accessibility issue with litigation pending, but said the bureau's latest study, due out in February 2009, will give the public an opportunity to comment on BEP's findings and recommendations.

Whatever feature set wins out, It's Our Money Too says blind Americans simply want to be able to identify bills by touch with the same ease that the rest of us identify them on sight.

"The one thing that the three of us would agree upon is that an electronic bill-reading device would be a totally unacceptable accommodation," says Simeone.

Roberts agrees: "It's not the answer to give everybody a secret decoder ring."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Texas.

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