President's Message: Pay It Forward in Two Ways

by Kim Charlson

I am so honored to be writing my first message as the newly elected president of the American Council of the Blind. I won't spend a lot of time discussing who I am as that has been covered in the expanded release story in the August issue.
Suffice it to say, I have a longstanding history of advocacy on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired locally, nationally and internationally. I've always been motivated to work to make things better for others experiencing vision loss. Whether the issues are education, rehabilitation, information access, civil rights, guide dog access, audio description, arts accessibility, housing issues, accessible voting, employment concerns and on and on ... there never seems to be a shortage of issues on which advocacy is needed. 
I've always been a believer in the concept of "pay it forward," a term describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of to the original benefactor. The concept is old, but the phrase is generally attributed to Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book "In the Garden of Delight."  For the attorneys among us, "pay it forward" is also a concept of contract law applying to loans and third-party beneficiaries. Over time, I've seen many examples of ACB members embracing this philosophy in their daily lives as well.
The second type of "pay it forward" that I want to discuss involves our actual U.S. paper currency. I want to provide an update on where developments are with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) on the progress of the accessible paper currency case.
As background, in October 2008, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of the American Council of the Blind, instructing the Secretary of the Department of the Treasury to take steps to make U.S. currency fully accessible. Since that time, the BEP has been engaged in several research projects to determine how to most effectively mark currency, how to make the paper money hold tactile markings for the lifetime of a bill, and how to implement this court order throughout the U.S. economy. Many factors have to be considered, and after my firsthand experience with BEP staff and the research process I am convinced that while it is taking time, the BEP is moving forward with a very deliberative process that will absolutely work well. Let me elaborate on my most recent experience with the BEP and consumer testing and research.
Staff from the BEP were in Columbus during the ACB convention to conduct usability testing with totally blind conference attendees on the potential tactile markings. BEP has been to previous conventions to gather data to identify the most effective raised tactile features to determine which are best detected by touch. This year they were testing the most effective transparent ink to place the tactile marking onto the paper note.
BEP staff visited the Perkins School for the Blind in late July to get specific feedback from teenagers, who were not represented in effective numbers at our conventions. I had the opportunity to do the testing firsthand, in addition to another 30 adults who provided further data for the research.
I believe that by inviting consumers who are blind to participate in testing, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has made it very clear that they want to "get it right" as they develop effective methods to make U.S. paper currency fully accessible by touch. The response from all testers was enthusiastic to say the least.
The user testing in Columbus and other locations across the country is part of a national consumer evaluation program to inform the development and design of paper money to provide users who are blind with a way to identify each denomination of U.S. currency. The process of data gathering, design and production is taking time, and often I hear from people asking "why is it taking so long?"
After experiencing the extent of the BEP testing process, the number one thing the BEP wants to do is to do it right. No one would be happy if the end result didn't hold the tactile markings for the life of the bill. For low-vision users, the BEP has committed to continue adding large, high-contrast numerals and distinctive color schemes to bills.
Each step in the process involves documenting the final decision - in the case of the inks to print the tactile markings on the bill, BEP needs definitive data to support their decision to select a specific manufacturer because when a decision is made that benefits one vendor, the other vendors often file challenges requiring the BEP to provide the data behind the decision.
One of the issues the BEP needs to take into consideration is the life cycle of paper currency. How long does a bill last before it wears out? $1 – 5.9 years; $5 – 4.9 years; $10 – 4.2 years; $20 – 7.7 years; $50 – 3.7 years; and $100 – 15 years. Until such time as the final unmarked bill is out of circulation, the BEP is planning on distributing a free, handheld, talking/vibratory electronic currency reader to consumers who are blind or visually impaired. This device will benefit people with neuropathy as well as providing identification for consumers until the tactile bills are released into circulation. The exact mechanism for the distribution process has not yet been determined, but as soon as timing and details are known, the word will be sent out through a wide variety of venues including ACB.
My confidence has been affirmed that the BEP is doing things right, that by engaging consumers in each phase of the testing, they will be getting it right for the future generations of people who are blind that will rely on tactile markings on currency to pay it forward. Yes, it will take time, but it is definitely coming. I hope you as ACB members are proud of what our organization has been able to achieve for future generations regarding currency access. We have truly all made a difference with "pay it forward" for people who are blind.