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How Do Blind People Know What Money They Have?

Pop Quiz – close your eyes, open your billfold or purse and count your money – no peeking.

You probably did pretty well with the coins. After all, with their seriated edges and distinctive sizes, the dimes and quarters probably stood out, and, after a little thought, you could probably distinguish pennies from nickels. This exercise may not have been easy at first, but, with a little effort, there’s a good chance you got the hang of it fairly quickly.

Distinguishing among the bills is a whole other matter. This is a trick question because, no matter how much you concentrate, it’s impossible to recognize one bill from another. You may have the most delicate touch in the world; you may even smell them; but there’s absolutely no way to distinguish United States currency. All of our bank notes look and feel the same.

When it comes right down to it, you’d have to do what every other blind or visually-impaired person in America has to do: rely on the honesty of someone else, frequently a stranger, to tell you what the bill is worth.

In my experience, the stranger you ask is almost always honest but only almost. Even when they’re completely honest, it’s more than a little degrading to be reduced to the level of a small child having to ask the grown-ups how much your money is worth.

Once you know which bill is which, it’s not hard to keep them straight in your wallet. There’s no Federal Reserve requirement dictating how to do this; every blind person has their own system, but the basics are pretty similar. You develop your own system for folding each denomination in a way that will be simple and uniquely memorable for you. I never fold a $1., always fold a $5. In half, fold a $10. Into fourths, etc. It’s not rocket science. You just want a system that you can easily remember and use quickly.

Yes, it’s the twenty-first century, and there are apps to assist with this. But, do you really want to have to pull out all of your cash at the grocery store, hold it up to the camera, and advertise how much money you have to all of the other people waiting in line? Remember, your phone is going to have to announce the answer out loud.

Many other countries, however, have eliminated the need for all of this by making currency that is readily accessible for all of their citizens. For example, different denominations may be printed with different colors to make them readily recognizable by people with low vision. Alternatively, each bill may be produced in a slightly different size or with a slightly different texture to facilitate easy identification.

The Bank of England, for example, just recently announced that its new £50 note will be the last piece of British currency to become fully accessible for the blind and visually impaired. It has been redesigned for printing on polymer material and will add four clusters of raised dots on the top-left corner of the new note

What a simple idea! Now, why doesn’t the United States do that? Very good question.

Since the late 1990s, the American Council of the Blind has been negotiating with the Bureau of Printing and Engraving within the Department of the Treasury to do what Canada, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and numerous other countries have done and make currency that it truly accessible.

I struggle to find something positive to write about this last quarter century’s experience with the Bureau. Well, at a time when we read about the toxic partisan atmosphere in Washington, they have been wonderfully nonpartisan. When the Republicans are in power, the Bureau promises to study the problem and does nothing, and, when the Democrats are in power, the Bureau promises to study the problem and does nothing.

In a recent article in the Wall St. Journal,

Bank of England’s Textured Bills Help Blind People Tell Them Apart

The Bureau says that all notes, other than the dollar bill, are slated for redesign by 2038. It acknowledges that this project is already running years behind schedule.

It may be coincidental, but the 2038 target date is forty years after the American Council began its campaign to get accessible currency. When I find this discouraging, I am reminded that it took the ancient Israelites forty years to find their way out of the wilderness. However, the Dept. of the Treasury, unlike the Israelites, lacks divine guidance directing its efforts so I am realistic and expect to go to my grave still folding my money and sometimes having to check with the grown-ups to answer that question that’s asked in the commercial: “What’s in your wallet?”

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