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.