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Volume 45, No. 1
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Cash Advance
Will the U.S. finally join the rest of the world in adapting its currency to help the blind?

Story by Vanessa Hua / Photos by Carlos Puma

Hoarded under mattresses, traded on the black market, or used to buy a quart of ice cream, the mighty dollar is the world’s most recognizable icon.

To many, the crisp green bills are a symbol of American power and influence.

To Richard Foster ’80, greenbacks reflect the arrogance of the U.S. government.

Traveling in Israel in 1979, Foster noticed that the shekel bore Braille dots to assist the blind in distinguishing currency. He wondered, why didn’t the United States, a much larger country, offer the same access?

That fall, working as a congressional intern during a semester in Washington D.C., the Pomona government major started researching ways to help blind people determine the denominations by touch. He tested out various methods of differentiation, quizzed officials at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and consulted with groups that advocate for the blind.

His idealistic efforts led to a bill sponsored by his boss, Rep. Pete Stark (and also led to a lengthy profile of Foster in the Los Angeles Times). But the legislation floundered, Foster moved on and the U.S. remained one of the few nations on the planet using currency so unfriendly to the blind.

“The government can hem and haw, they can put up whatever arguments they want, but bottom line—nearly every country in the world has addressed this,” said Foster, a Santa Monica lawyer.

Now, nearly three decades later, greenbacks may finally be poised for change. The victory this May took the judicial instead of legislative route, when a federal appeals court ordered the Treasury Department to stop discriminating against those who are blind. The suit was brought by the American Council for the Blind on behalf of two visually-impaired men.

One of them, Otis Stephens, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, described his anguish at being forced to depend on others. “I can never be certain whether I have provided or received the correct denominations,” Stephens said in a filing. “I cannot emphasize enough the feelings of insecurity and vulnerability.”

The Treasury had argued that changes were too expensive, with an estimated cost of $45 to $75 million for tactile features and more than $200 million for different sizes of denominations. Judge Judith Rogers wasn’t buying that argument, noting in the 2-1 decision that, because other currency systems around the world accommodate the blind, “the Secretary’s burden in demonstrating that implementing an accommodation would be unduly burdensome is particularly heavy,” she wrote. “The Secretary has not explained why U.S. paper currency is so different or the situation of the Bureau so unique.”

The ruling cites the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which banned government discrimination against the disabled and led to sweeping changes such as ramps and walkways for public buildings and schools. As of press time, the Treasury was researching ways to adapt the currency and hadn’t announced whether it would pursue further appeals.

THE RULING doesn’t call for a specific way of identifying the denominations, though many countries have incorporated features such as variable size, color and tactile markings.

Euro banknotes have a dominant color and large numbers to make them easier to see for those with limited vision—the larger the denomination, the larger the banknote. Canada’s currency has embossed dots, Japanese yen have textured patches, and Swiss francs employ perforated numerals. Australia’s dollars differ in color and size. English pounds vary in color and size and have tactile symbols. And the Chinese yuan differs in color and has tactile symbols, as does currency in Argentina and Israel.

“It’s pretty clear to me that we are very far behind compared to the rest of the world,” said Claire Becker ’03, who teaches at the California School for the Blind in Fremont, Calif. She used news of the ruling to start a discussion with her students.

“We talked about what currency was like in other countries and one student remembered different-sized bills and coins with holes in them he had examined in Mexico,” said Becker, a poet fascinated by the importance of verbal communication to the blind. “They were very excited about the possibility of different sized bills or bills with Braille in them to indicate their value.”

Ten million people in the U.S. suffer from severe vision loss, of which 1.3 million are legally blind. Among them is Martha Pamperin ’59, who has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative disease which left her blind. If the currency is redesigned, “that will make it somewhat easier and quicker for many blind people to handle money. It could also open some jobs now closed,” said Pamperin, who teaches Braille at the Hadley School for the Blind, a distance learning institution headquartered in Winnetka, Ill.

Until then, Pamperin—like many blind and visually impaired—is forced to adapt and assume the honesty of others.

A common system is to keep the $1 bills flat, fold fives in half vertically (like a hamburger) and tens in half horizontally (like a hot dog), and twenties are folded in half vertically, then again horizontally. Some do not use $50 or $100 bills because keeping track of the change can be problematic.

That said, the blind community is not united on the issue. The National Federation of the Blind, another advocacy group, said the ruling causes harm by giving a false impression of the capabilities of blind people. “Blind people deal with paper money as it currently exists every day, so we feel that the court’s ruling that the blind do not have ‘meaningful access’ to paper money is factually incorrect,” said spokesman Chris Danielson.

“Changes to paper money that make it identifiable by touch will make the handling of paper money more convenient for blind people, but are not an absolute necessity. (In July, the federation passed a carefully worded resolution urging the Treasury to make currency more identifiable to the blind—so long as it made bills more convenient for everyone and provides a safeguard against counterfeiting.)

And just as the Treasury worries about the cost of a changeover, so does the vending machine industry. Experts estimate the cost of conversion at $200 to $300 per vending machine.

U.S. COINS ARE already differentiated by size and ridges: the penny has smooth edges, the dime is ridged. But greenbacks are tradition-bound. They’ve been green since 1861, save for the addition of touches of color in recent years. The basic design of the bills has remained much the same since 1929, when the government began full-scale production of small-size notes.

Making any changes to the dollar is analogous to steering a very large ship. It’s the most widely-used currency in the world, with $786 billion in circulation.

“This is our problem in a nutshell,” Larry R. Felix, the bureau’s director, told author Craig Karmin in the Biography of the Dollar. “Make a currency as complex as humanly possible to manufacture but easy enough for the person on the street to recognize. Create more secure design changes, but still keep it uniquely American. And then do it billions and billions of times.”

The Bureau undertook redesigns in 1996 and 2004 to protect against counterfeiting, with changes such as enlarged numerals and different colors for each denomination. To protect the security of the currency, the Bureau alters designs every seven to 10 years. The new $5 bill, unveiled in March of this year, has two new watermarks and an enhanced security thread and purple numeral five on the lower right corner on the back.

The $100 bill is the next denomination slated for a new design. But critics say the changes didn’t go far enough, since U.S. banknotes remain identical in size and texture. Following the May ruling, the Bureau hired a research firm to conduct a study to gather additional data, research and analysis for development of methods to help the blind and visually impaired. Results of the study are slated for next year.

So what might the new bills look and feel like? Foster—the once fresh-faced intern—still thinks his plan has merit, three decades later. His proposal called for snipping the edges on different corners of the bills to designate denominations. The $1 bill would be trimmed on all four corners, $5 bill the upper left and lower right corners, the $10 on the upper left and upper right corners, and the $20 on one corner.

Back in 1979, his research took Foster from vending machines that were fed the doctored bills (it worked), to local blind advocacy and service groups (not all of them agreed), and all the way to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

“I was obviously nervous and solicitous,” Foster said, recalling his meeting with a top official who “pulls out a desk drawer, with stacks of bills, prototypes with all sorts of ways of distinguishing them.” According to the Bureau, none were feasible but Foster left the meeting still convinced of his plan.

And more and more, advocates say, it’s looking like some sort of plan for blind-friendly currency will come to fruition, though it would be years before redesigned currency would reach circulation.

The May appeals court victory was the second for the American Council for the Blind, upholding a 2006 ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson decided that the government must create currency the blind can differentiate. Now, with the appeal rejected, the advocacy group is waiting to see whether the district court requires the government to come up with a corrective action plan.

Following the news of the recent court decisions has been exciting—and satisfying—for Foster, who had lost touch with the issue over the years.

“Everyone, when they are spending money, is going to see that the government was sensitive to the needs of the blind,” Foster said. “It’s an indication of the importance of the issue to America.”

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