PHILLIPS COLUMN: U.S. currency needs update for the blind

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Have you ever been to a store, made a purchase and had no way of knowing if the cashier gave you the correct change back? This is the way of life for blind people in America everyday.

The only way they have to determine if they are receiving the correct amount in return is to count on the honesty of the person giving change, ask someone for assistance or purchase a currency reader for approximately $300 and take it with them as they shop. Of course, often times the counters do not work if the bills have been crumbled or torn.

For those of you who haven’t ever considered it, all U.S. paper currency is the same size regardless of denomination. A $1 bill feels exactly the same as a $100 bill, and unless you can see the writing on the bills you’d never know which is which.

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Most other countries vary their currency somewhat, so a $20 will be bigger than a $5 for example, or there may even be tactile identification on the bills, both of which make it easier for the blind to thumb through their wallets and find the right bill.

I never noticed myself, until in recent years. My mother has begun losing her eyesight due to diabetic retinopathy. Luckily for my mom, she doesn’t ever go shopping alone, so there is always someone there to help her distinguish between the bills.

The first time I realized my mom couldn’t clearly distinguish between the bills, she handed me a $100 instead of a $10. Of course, I corrected her and switched bills with her before paying the store clerk. But, in the process it embarrassed my mom and made me nervous that this sort of thing could have happened before and no one have caught it.

Earlier this week the Bush administration asked an appeals court to overturn a ruling issued in late November that has the potential to require a redesign of the nation’s currency to assist the blind in identifying currency.

The appeal was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by Justice Department lawyers on behalf of the Treasury Secretary against a ruling in which U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in a lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind for the Treasury to come up with ways for the blind to distinguish between different currencies.

The council proposed changes be made to the currency such as different sizes of bills or changing the texture of each currency so it is identifiable. They also suggested adding embossed dots or raised ink for identification purposes.

While there are pros and cons to every situation, I do not feel that this is something the government can just ignore. There are approximately 7 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired, and the numbers are expected to increase by 4 million people by 2015 as Baby Boomers grow older. Because of the growing visually impaired population, it is justified that the government make changes to currency so there are no restraints on this population.

In the ruling, the court noted that America is unusual among its peer nations in not producing currency accessible to the blind.

The Euro varies in size based on denomination: the greater the value of the note, the greater the length. The notes also vary in height. Euros also possess tactile features: each bill includes a large, raised numeral designed to be perceptible to touch, at least when the bank notes are new and a foil feature that can be identified by touch; the foil feature on the smaller notes is of a different shape and in a different location than those on the larger ones.

The Swiss Franc contains intaglio digits and a perforated numeral that can be identified by touch.

Japan, in a new design for the Yen, has incorporated a tactile feature in the 10,000, 5,000 and 1,000 notes, different for each note, that has a rougher texture than the rest of the bill.

The Canadian Dollar also contains tactile features. On the upper right corner on the face of each bill is a series of raised symbols separated by a smooth surface, which differ according to denomination. The $5 note has one raised symbol, the $10 note has two such symbols, and so forth.

It is clear to me that if almost all the other nations in the world make sure to include ways to differentiate between the currency then the U.S. should definitely step up to bat and make these needed changes. After all, we are a nation for all people, the blind included.

Gennie Phillips is managing editor of The Times.

She can be reached at (334) 289-4017 ext. 305

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