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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Identifying Money by Color and Touch

The different coins in your pockets are distinguishable by size, thickness, weight, and sometimes by color.  The bills in your wallet, on the other hand, are the same shape, same color, and same size.

Caption: Photo of a $1 bill

Over the years, I have read about blind and visually impaired people who blog or comment about how difficult it is to distinguish currency notes.

Virtually all of them have developed a system for distinguishing notes: $1 notes are unfolded, $5 notes are folded left-to-right, $10 notes are folded top-to-bottom, and so forth. This is a slow and cumbersome way of keeping track of notes.  Before the bills are folded, it is necessary for blind persons to ask someone else to verify that this bill is indeed $1 and that bill is indeed $10. (Of course, we hope that in relying on the kindness of strangers, the blind are not cheated in the process.) Those with money could choose to shell out $200.00 for a pocket computer that will announce the denominations of US paper currency. Those with low vision can purchase a high powered magnifier to distinguish one denomination from the other.

But is any of this really necessary? Why not just make it simple and ask the Treasury Department to design the notes in a way that blind and visually impaired people will be able to distinguish one note from another?

Shouldn’t U.S. notes be accessible to the blind and visually impaired under federal law, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

At least one blogger suggested that “I don’t think you will find this conversation going on anywhere else in the world.” Actually, Canada, Indonesia, and Japan consulted with the blind before printing new money. As far back as 2004, Japan currency has had raised tactile marks that distinguish between denominations. Euros and Swiss Francs also possess tactile features. In some other countries, a conversation wasn’t necessary because the notes were already in different colors and shapes, which made it easy to distinguish between notes.

Caption: U.S. Dollars are all green whereas Euros are multicolored depending on the denomination

In 2002, a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the American Council of the Blind argued that our current U.S. notes were inaccessible. The court agreed and ordered the U.S. Treasury Department to redesign its notes to make it more accessible. In his court opinion, Judge Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that the blind and visually impaired plaintiffs “demonstrated that they lack meaningful access to U.S. currency…. I find, accordingly, that the Treasury Department’s failure to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired individuals violates [section] 504 of the Rehabilitation Act…”

See also Judge Rogers’ opinion which affirms the District Court’s ruling (“The current design of paper money springs from the world of the sighted….”).

The Treasury Department is required to provide the court a “status report” every six months “outlining its progress” in designing and implementing the new currency.  The Department’s most recent status report (August 2009) can be found here.

There is still no timetable for the redesigned currency.  It’s anyone’s guess when the new, accessible notes will be issued.

In the meantime, the Treasury Department recently issued a commemorative coin to honor the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille, the inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing for the blind. In a short but provocative post, one blogger wrote, “I find this move by the U.S. Mint to be honorable, but insulting at the same time. They’re willing to put Braille on a coin, which is already distinguishable by the blind, but not on our bills which the blind can not distinguish.”

Go figure.

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    There are 2 comments. Add Yours.

    Sara

    It’s almost as if the government is saying that there’s not a large enough population of visually impaired people to justify the expense of printing new currency. What an excuse, eh? Most people I know fold their money in certain ways or separate bills into different pockets of the wallet. What if you accidentally misplace your $20 for your 5 dollar bill, and you give the $20 to the waitress instead of a $5? Is the waitress likely to give the customer the exact change or take advantage of the situation?

    I forsee something coming out of this eventually, but maybe we’re looking at a 5 year program. Any suggestions on lobbying or sending info to our representatives?

    Matthew Stoloff

    Thanks for your comment.

    I applaud the federal judges who held that the US currency fails to comply with 504. However, I agree that if the courts had set a timetable, things would be put in motion much faster. Your suggested 5 year timetable sounds very reasonable.

    Lobbying the federal government may be a good idea. It may be helpful to have Congress impose a timetable on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to do all that is necessary to comply with 504. Perhaps a letter to your Senator may help speed things along.

    By the way, did you see the summary of the Treasury Department’s status report at Numismatic.com? Apparently, printing currency with raised tactile marks may cost $6.6 billion. I wonder how that number was calculated. I doubt that Japan and other countries invested that much money.