Many years before spearheading a $700 billion package to rescue Wall Street banks despite cries from exasperated Americans who didn’t like where their hard-earned money was going, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson found himself in hot water with another group of irate Americans — 10 million to be exact — who didn’t like how their money looked or felt.
Mr. Paulson was sued in 2002 by the American Council of the Blind (ACB) on behalf of blind and visually impaired Americans, who said the Treasury was being discriminatory by failing to make U.S. currency accessible. According to the ruling, blind and visually impaired people must rely on the “kindness of strangers” for help reading their money, or else use an electronic bill reader to identify and speak the dollar denomination.
In a landmark ruling in May 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals said the Treasury Dept. must make U.S. currency accessible to blind and visually impaired Americans under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — as soon as possible. Which means in about five to eight years, or whenever the next bill redesign begins.
I’m a big believer in assistive technology, and relying on the “kindness of strangers” isn’t very high-tech. Nor is the the “origami” solution, where the blind person folds their currency into different shapes and sizes in order to identify it. Many blind people do use bill-reading machines, such as the Note Teller 2 from Brytech, which costs about $300 and is the size of an iPhone. However, these machines have an 80 percent accuracy rate, and require the user to enter the bills properly. Like vending machines, a bill reader will reject bills that are too old or wrinkled.
There is also a peripheral issue, here: Some people I know, my 64-year-old father included, have trouble reading smaller print and won’t carry anything larger than a $20 bill out of fear of tipping the waiter too much. Tactile feedback would be very helpful to our country’s aging population. More than 100 countries already have systems of currency where a blind person can pick up a bill and know right away what denomination it is. For instance: the euro, the Japanese Yen, the Swiss Franc, the Canadian dollar, as well as Australian, Argentinean, Chinese, English and Israeli currencies. The Bank of Canada even provides free electronic bill readers to those who need them.
It has been suggested that blind people should use their credit or debit card instead of paper money. A credit/debit card could work, if it weren’t for some glaring barriers, the largest being that credit-card users are charged interest for purchases. And debit cards require entering a personal identification number (PIN) at the point-of-sale on a screen that offers no tactile or audio feedback. So while the blind person is relying on the “kindness of strangers” he’s putting his bank account at risk, too.
Banks like Bank of America have been doing a great job at making their ATMs accessible for the blind through the use of audio features and a headphone. Now let’s make sure that the money that comes out of them is, too.
Related article: A Dollar Bill Reader That’s Easy On Your Wallet