Changes to currency may help the blind

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Before reading any further, close your eyes, reach into your purse or wallet and fish out $12 in cash.

Can’t do it? You now know what currency discrimination feels like.

Currently, 3.3 million blind and visually impaired Americans depend on someone else — a family member, friend, cashier or bank teller — to identify the denomination of each bill for them before they can organize their money to spend themselves.

Some depend on talking electronic bill identifiers that aren’t always accurate and fail to work on every bill.

Once the bills are identified, most blind people use a personal folding system to tell their bills apart.

Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, or ACB, organizes her cash this way: $1 bills unfolded, $5 bills in half lengthwise, $10 bills in half widthwise and $20 bills in quarters.

“You can fold them all you want, but when you go to take them out, if you drop them on the floor, then you’re up a creek,” Brunson says. “It would be much better for us if we didn’t have to go through all that hassle.”

Now, thanks to a recent court ruling, truly accessible currency may finally be in sight for all Americans.

Last May, in the seventh year of a lawsuit filed by the ACB, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Treasury Department must make U.S. currency accessible to blind and visually impaired Americans under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The appellate court bounced the case back to District Court, which instructed Treasury to make U.S. bills accessible as soon as possible. Some legal maneuvering remains ahead, however.

If and when it happens — most likely in five to eight years, when the next round of bill redesigns are expected — America’s greenbacks will look and feel significantly different.

So different, in fact, that a blind person will be able to tell them apart.

Which features might find their way onto accessible American currency? Here’s how other countries have addressed the issue:

Ways your money might change
  • Size. Nearly every country on earth prints different denominations in different sizes. In Australia, where bills vary by length and color, they even sell a notched plastic device to help blind foreigners get a grip on their money. Aussie bills also are made of a plastic polymer that lasts four times longer than fibrous currency.
  • Color. The color of money may not help the blind, but it does wonders for the visually and cognitively impaired. Only the United States and Switzerland do not designate denominations by color.
  • Embossing. To the sighted, it would seem intuitive to use embossed Braille to identify bills in the same way we identify room numbers and elevators. One big problem: Not all blind and visually impaired people read Braille. In Canada, the upper right corner of the face side of bills is embossed. The downside: Embossing tends to flatten with use.
  • Engraving. Sixteen countries engrave their bills with printed patterns. These, too, tend to flatten with age.
  • Watermarks. Similar to engraving, watermarks provide a raised surface to help the blind identify notes. The Japanese yen incorporates watermarks in the corners of bills.
  • Notches, cut corners and holes. Corner clipping and other low-cost solutions are generally ineffective. After all, how many normal notes have you had where one or more corners were missing through use and abuse? The same holds true with notches, while holes would weaken the bill, shortening its lifespan.

What took so long?

Sighted Americans, who largely have been unaware of the long struggle to end currency discrimination in the United States, may react to this news with a simple question: What took us so long?

The answer dates back to a 25-year-old study.

In 1983, at the request of Congress, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or BEP, conducted a study that found that “the most widely useful currency design change would be to produce (notes) in a different size for each denomination.”

Among the 180 countries and jurisdictions that issue paper money, only the United States prints bills the same size and color in all denominations.

But, the BEP study warned, “the effects of such a change on broad and diverse segments of the population would be monumental,” although it failed to elaborate on that assertion.

The study’s recommended solution: electronic bill readers for the blind. Indeed, the BEP subsequently funded a $50,000 program to develop one.

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.