Using Money When You Can’t See It

thumbnail_equal_opportunityHow does someone who is visually impaired distinguish a $1 bill from a $5 or a $20? It’s nearly impossible—U.S. paper currency is all the same size, same general design, and has the same texture.

But there’s also no simple fix because people have varying types and degrees of visual impairment.

For Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, the WatchBlog explores the 3-pronged approach the Treasury Department is taking to make U.S. currency more accessible to the visually impaired.

Figure 4: Select U.S. Notes Showing Changes to Numerals1. Bigger, brighter, bolder

Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing is the federal agency responsible for designing and printing paper money.

Starting in 1997, the Bureau added larger numbers to the back of paper currency (except for the $1 and $2 bills). The Bureau added even larger, colored numbers (referred to as “high contrast”) to the $5 bill in 2008 and to the $100 bill in 2010.

While these new bills are an improvement, these numbers alone may not be enough to identify the denomination, depending on lighting conditions and the amount of useful vision a visually impaired person has.

2. Tell me about it

In July 2014, the Bureau began giving free currency-reader devices to eligible people. The reader, named the iBill, is a battery-operated device that can identify the denomination of a bill.

For example, the iBill can indicate a $20 bill by saying “twenty” through a speaker or an earpiece, emitting two high-pitched beeps, or vibrating for two long pulses. Or, for a $5 bill, it can say “five,” emit three low-pitched beeps, or vibrate for three short pulses.

Figure 5: Currency Reader Device That the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) Provides to Visually Impaired Persons(Excerpted from GAO-14-823)

When we examined this issue in 2014, advocates for visually impaired people were generally positive about the iBill, but there were some concerns. Many visually impaired people already carry several devices to assist them in everyday life, and the iBill would be one more item to carry. It also takes time to use the device, and users have experienced errors or other technical difficulties.

3. Feel the difference

Finally, the Bureau wants to add a raised tactile feature—something on the surface of a note that feels different—to enable easy identification of each denomination. Some advocates for the visually impaired said this feature would provide independence because a bill’s value could be determined without any help.

Figure 6: Raised Tactile Feature Design and Denominating Pattern Approved for Use in Testing(Excerpted from GAO-14-823)

The Bureau plans to add a raised tactile feature as each denomination is redesigned, estimating that the design for the first bill with this feature could be unveiled in 2020. However, even after these redesigned bills are released, bills without the feature will likely remain in circulation for many years.

To learn more about currency accessibility issues, check out our full report.

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