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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”