by Melanie Brunson
Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006 was a historic day for ACB. On that day, U.S. District Judge James Robertson issued his decision in ACB's pending case against the United States Treasury Department. Judge Robertson found that the Department of the Treasury is violating federal law by failing to design, produce and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable by people who are blind or visually impaired. Shortly after this decision was announced, the government announced its intention to appeal. As I write, we are awaiting a decision by the District of Columbia Circuit Court as to whether it will hear the government's appeal.
In the meantime, as many of you know, Judge Robertson's decision has caused quite a stir! Discussion of the case has been widespread in both radio and television programs, as well as the print media. Interest in the case has not been limited to the U.S. media. Both Chris Gray and I were interviewed by reporters from the BBC shortly after the decision was announced and a film crew from French television visited the ACB office. While I was in Tokyo, Japan to attend a conference last month, I was informed that one of the conference organizers had just submitted an article on the American court decision to a Japanese publication for people with disabilities.
We believe that continued public discussion of the accessibility of U.S. currency is beneficial and we hope that public discourse on the subject will continue. In an effort to facilitate that discussion and provide answers to some of the questions that have been raised thus far, ACB's Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs, Day Al-Mohamed, put together a fact sheet entitled Accessible Paper Currency -- Myth vs. Fact. I thought it would be helpful to readers of "The Braille Forum" to have the information in this fact sheet for their own reference, so, with Day's permission, I will include it here. Please read on and, if you still have questions after you finish, feel free to contact either Day or me. We will keep you posted as this case develops.
Following this article, you will find a short survey on access to paper currency. We would appreciate it if you would take a few minutes to answer the questions in our brief survey and send them, in any format, to the ACB national office. We value your input on this important issue. Now, here's some additional information for your consideration.
Accessible Paper Currency -- Myth vs. Fact TRUE OR FALSE?
Making paper currency accessible to the blind and visually impaired is an extreme measure and an unheard-of accommodation.
FALSE. Almost 200 countries issuing paper currency have made their currency accessible using various methods, leaving the United States as the only nation that prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations. These include nations and groups with larger populations and currency printing needs such as Canada and the European Union, but also smaller countries such as Barbados, Namibia and Uruguay.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Making paper currency accessible isn't really necessary because it only affects a small group of people.
FALSE. Cataracts, which result in cloudy or blurred vision, affect 20.5 million people in the United States today, but that number will rise to 30 million in 2020. Diabetes as a result of obesity is an increasing issue for millions of Americans, and for 5.3 million of them, diabetic retinopathy will cause vision loss. For seniors, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma will affect 1.6 million and 2.2 million people respectively, and those numbers are expected to grow. What those statistics mean is that roughly 1 in 250 people will have some sort of visual impairment by 2020.
In addition, making paper currency accessible will impact a much larger group of individuals than just those who are blind and visually impaired. The increased ease in differentiating money will work to the benefit of seniors, individuals with cognitive disabilities and even people without disabilities in environments where there is low lighting such as restaurants, taxicabs, and bars.
Curb cuts were created for individuals who use wheelchairs, yet non-disabled pedestrians such as people with strollers, wheeled luggage and moving dollies have significantly benefitted and make regular use of curb cuts. Closed captioning was initially thought of as an imposition forced on the public by the deaf community, and yet it is now widely used in places such as airports, hospitals, bars and gyms. Creating an additional means of identifying paper currency has the potential to be just as beneficial to society as a whole.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Making paper currency accessible makes it easier to counterfeit U.S. money.
FALSE. The advent of computers, scanners and printers and other even newer technology has made counterfeiting even easier. However, tactile changes, such as a number of those proposed and utilized by other nations as a part of their accessible currency initiatives, also make it more difficult to counterfeit currency.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Making paper currency accessible is too expensive.
FALSE. There are several ways to alter paper currency to make it accessible, such as varying sizes, raised symbols, intaglio, punched holes or even rounded edges, each of which would have a different cost estimate; therefore, there is some question as to the accuracy of any estimates proposed at this time.
In addition, even if one were to accept the figures put forward by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, then in the context of the amount spent annually, accessibility alterations would be less than 5 percent of their cost, perhaps even less if changes were made over time. Considering that U.S. currency is redesigned every few years, including accessibility in the next design change would not necessarily increase the cost significantly. It is important to remember that the latest redesign is already under way -- new $10 bills, with a new $5 bill due to come out in 2008.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Making paper currency accessible will be exorbitantly expensive to the vending machine industry.
FALSE. There are a variety of methods to making paper currency identifiable that have been successfully implemented abroad. No specific change has been determined at this time and the American Council of the Blind does not endorse any single method, so it is impossible to determine how much costs and alterations to vending, ticketing or other machines will be. In addition, currently, there are no suggested changes to the $1 bill, which is the most commonly used bill in the industry and accounts for 50 percent of the bills minted by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
TRUE OR FALSE?
Portable note-reading devices are a better alternative to changing currency.
FALSE. The use of a special machine that people who are blind and visually impaired would be required to use or possess is impractical and inefficient. Individuals would have to carry the machine with them everywhere. The current cost of such portable readers is around $300 per machine and they have been shown not to work well with worn, crumpled or dirty bills. Making sure the bill is in the correct orientation for the reading device can be difficult to do without vision and time-consuming. In addition, such readers are relatively slow at identifying bills; doing so one bill at a time would not be welcome in a busy line. And there is the question of the ability of such machines to continue to be effective over time for new currency design upgrades. Plus, the machines themselves wear out and break down.
Also of concern is the fact that such portable devices announce the denomination out loud and require the identification of each bill singly, forcing a blind individual to more openly handle their money to identify it, a safety issue in today's crowded urban areas. Creating a requirement for a special note-reading device becomes the development of technology as a substitute for access instead of a means to achieve access. But perhaps just as important, requiring people who are blind and visually impaired to use a special note-reading device rather than making the currency itself accessible means that the potential benefit is denied to the larger population who would benefit from alternate access to paper currency such as seniors, individuals with cognitive disabilities, non-English-speaking immigrants, non-disabled individuals in low light situations and even blind or visually impaired tourists.