Tactile Currency Benefits Everyone

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Do you ever count the money you receive from customers or cashiers, just to make sure you’ve been given the correct payment or the correct change? Most people consider this a matter of common sense, but blind people in the United States don’t have access to this basic level of personal security because the U.S. (unlike nearly every other country on earth) issues paper money that is the same size and texture for all denominations. As a result, although blind people can fold paper money in certain ways or use other clever workarounds to keep track of the bills in our wallets or cash registers, we still have to rely at some point on sighted people or currency-reading machines to identify any paper money we receive. We in Our Money Too believe that making U.S. banknotes distinguishable by touch would be an important step forward for blind people—and the rest of the nation too.

For blind people, being unable to identify paper money without the help of a sighted person or a currency-reading machine certainly adds unnecessary complication to our personal lives, but even worse, it limits our access to employment. So many jobs involve handling cash—especially the entry-level retail jobs many young people seek out as they enter the workforce for the first time—and businesses are reluctant to hire anyone who needs to run every single bill through a special machine in order to identify it. As a result, many young visually impaired people graduate school without paid work experience on their resumés, which certainly does not help them as they enter the job market.

Sighted people from other countries often complain that U.S. paper money is confusing because all the denominations look basically the same at first glance. Most Americans—including many blind Americans—are so accustomed to the inefficient design of our paper currency that we rarely ever think about it, but our neighbors in practically every other country on earth have demonstrated that paper money with tactile features is more convenient for everyone, whether blind or sighted.

In 1995 the National Academy of Sciences published an extensive report on accessibility features for paper currency, but when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (B.E.P.) redesigned the $20 bill for the first time in 1996, they ignored nearly all the recommendations of the report. In 1997, with the support of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the National Federation of the Blind, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution encouraging the B.E.P. to “incorporate cost-effective, tactile features” into its next scheduled redesign process, noting that “electronic means of bill identification will always be more fallible than purely tactile means” (H.R. 122, 105th Congress).

The Treasury and the B.E.P. continued to ignore these calls for change, so in 2002, the American Council of the Blind took them to court. On November 28, 2006, Federal District Judge James Robertson ruled in favor of the ACB, stating that the government’s failure to design U.S. currency in a way that allows blind and visually impaired people to distinguish the bills independently is a violation of §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federal government programs. An html version of the ruling has been produced and made available by Our Money Too. The Treasury Department is currently appealing the decision.

Treasury officials protest that changing U.S. paper currency would cost too much, but in the meantime, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on multiple redesigns of nearly all the denominations of paper money in circulation—and they plan to keep doing it every few years from now on. As the Treasury continues to develop new bill designs with new anti-counterfeiting features, why not include some distinctive tactile features for the different denominations? If tactile features were phased in gradually, as part of the redesigns already scheduled for each denomination, the additional cost would be far less than some people fear.

The Treasury also argues that making paper currency accessible would interfere with anti-counterfeiting efforts, but this seems particularly disingenuous, given that so many other countries consider the tactile features on their banknotes to be an important part of their anti-counterfeiting designs. Tactile features made of specialized materials are too difficult for counterfeiters to replicate, and many kinds of tactile features also prevent accurate photocopying of banknotes by creating blurry spots in the scan. Even simply varying the sizes of the different denominations would prevent criminals from bleaching the ink off low-value bills and overprinting them to resemble higher-value bills (this particular scam is one of the reasons why the B.E.P. is redesigning the $5 bill right now).

The B.E.P. plans to redesign U.S. banknotes every few years anyway, so why not take advantage of these opportunities to add tactile features that would make the currency harder to counterfeit and easier for everyone to use? England already did it, Canada did it, Europe did it—even Iraq did it, so why can’t we? Adding tactile features to our paper money is a worthwhile investment in America’s national security and productivity. Continuing to fight it is a waste.

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3 Responses to “Tactile Currency Benefits Everyone”

  1. Karla Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the above article. I dealt with the design of U.S. paper currency as a blind person for years, asking cashiers which bills were which when they gave me change so that I could fold them differently and just hoping that I wasn’t being cheated. Then I spent six months studying abroad in Scotland during college and traveled throughout Europe, and I realized that none of the other countries I visited while I was there had paper money that was as inaccessible as ours in the U.S. Almost all of the countries had bills that were different sizes and many had raised markings or other distinguishing features on them too. And this was a few years before the introduction of the euro, which is also accessible because the different bills are different sizes (with patterns of raised markings on the largest denominations). Not only did I enjoy this as a blind person, because it allowed me to count my change independently for the first time in my life (that was incredibly liberating!), but my sighted friends from the U.S. also preferred it because they said it made it easier to tell the different bills apart with the extra size cues, especially in dim lighting.

    A lot of people may not realize it yet because they don’t have anything to compare it to, but I’m sure that if we added tactile features to our currency in this country, everyone would soon start looking at them as an improvement and would wonder why it took us so long to come up with this convenient and helpful idea. As a blind person who has benefitted from the greater financial independence possible in countries that already have accessible paper currency, I’m already wondering, and I’m tired of waiting.

  2. Jake Says:

    I see this site hasn’t been updated for a little while, but hopefully my comment will still go through and be read. I have had this conversation with many sighted friends, and believe it or not I have run into opposition by a few. I don’t get it! Do these people who oppose accessible paper currency not want us to be independent or what? The funny thing is, some of these people are actually supporting other forms of independence such as taking my own garbage out and walking to work by myself.

  3. Kennith Mcpharlane Says:

    I lost a lot of money until I realized that you need to find out as much as you can and you need to test your knowledge with a good training program. I use Forex Tester 2

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