Blind Discrimination: Paper Money Feels the Same

Yesterday, in a watershed moment in the history of the disabled, U.S. District Judge James Robertston finally instructed the United States Treasury to find a way for the Blind to discriminate between paper money denominations.

Twenty

It is difficult to understand why it has taken so long for this mandatory change in paper money to finally be enforced by the Judiciary.

“Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations,” Robertson wrote. “More than 100 of the other issuers vary their bills in size according to denomination, and every other issuer includes at least some features that help the visually impaired.”Government attorneys argued that forcing the Treasury Department to change the size of the bills or add texture would make it harder to prevent counterfeiting. Robertson was not swayed…. He said the government was violating the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs. The opinion came after a four-year legal fight.

Janna and I have spend the last 18 years of our lives working with the Deaf and Deaf-Blind and there has always been an ongoing and difficult negotiation of trust when it comes to the Blind and their money. Too often “friends” and “staff” and store workers “help” the Blind by stealing their money and shorting them when allowances are handed out, ATM withdrawals are made, or when change is given.

If a Blind person hands you a $20 bill and you give them change for a $5 bill and pocket the $15 difference, what is the Blind person going to do? Accuse you of stealing? Tell you a mistake was made? If you help a Blind person withdraw $20 from an ATM but you really withdraw $60 and pocket the $40, how will the Blind person know of your deceit until it is too late to do anything about it? It is nearly impossible for a Blind person in the field to recognize paper money denominations so it is only later, after they return home to count their money, that they discover they have been ripped off and by that time all they can do is get angry.

Electronic devices are available to help blind people differentiate between bills, but many complain that they are slow, expensive and unreliable. Visually impaired shoppers frequently rely on store clerks to help them. “It’s just frankly unfair that blind people should have to rely on the good faith of people they have never met in knowing whether they’ve been given the correct change,” said Jeffrey A. Lovitky, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Others have developed ways to cope with the similarly shaped bills. Melanie Brunson, a member of the American Council of the Blind, told the court that she folds her bills into different shapes: $1 bills stay straight, $5 bills are folded in half left to right, $10 bills in half top to bottom and $20 in quarters.

The Blind we worked with preferred to staple their money for identification because it was more permanent and more reliable than folding and less destructive than punching holes. A dollar bill had no staple. $5 had a single staple in one corner. $10 had two staples. $20 had three.

U.S. bills have not always been the same size. In 1929, the government standardized the size and shrank all bills by about 30 percent to lower manufacturing costs and help distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes. In court documents, government attorneys said changing the way money feels would be expensive. Cost estimates ranged from $75 million in equipment upgrades and $9 million annual expenses for punching holes in bills to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million annual expenses for printing bills of varying sizes.

Paper money is always changing to thwart counterfeiters so why not make some of those methods friendly to the Blind? If texture differences and varying sizes and unique bubble markings were added to each denomination, then all the bills become harder to fake. The U.S. Treasury should embrace this ruling by Judge Robertson and make our paper money safer and friendlier to the disabled so the Blind no longer have to rely on the cruelty of strangers and friends for stealing their money.

47 comments

  • I never thought about this before. American money is all the same size and shape. I guess it feels the same, too. It must be confusing for those who cannot see.

  • It is really outrageous the Blind have had to suffer so at the hands of the dishonest for son long, Anne. The ADA has been the law of the land since 1991, but only now the discrimination in money is being fixed? Scandalous!

  • It does seem that adding something with texture to let the blind “see it better” would also deter bad people trying to copy our money. This is a good thing. I agree it has taken too long to get enacted, though.

  • Right, Anne! Our money is insecure and is discriminatory! We can kill two inequities with a single fix.
    If you ever see a Blind person with a whistle standing on a street corner blowing that whistle, it means they need help to cross the street. Go tap them on the shoulder and let them take your elbow so they can safely follow you across the street.

  • I will do that. I guess you tap on the shoulder because you don’t know if they can hear you or not? You don’t assume they are just blind and not deaf and blind?

  • Yes, Anne! You can voice and tap at the same time just to play it safe. That way you are respecting whatever means of communication they use to interact with others.

  • About time too ! It has always struck me as odd that all the paper money was the same size in the USA.

  • Does UK money have a different feel and size?
    What accommodations are made for the disabled in the UK when it comes to money?

  • Our paper money is all different sizes.
    http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/current/index.htm
    They also have large symbols – a different one for each denomination to aid the partially sighted.
    Our banks also supply on request note gauges.
    From the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
    “Barclays provides a single piece of plastic which has a narrow ‘ledge’ at the back against which notes can be held. It is dark blue and has the denominations marked in a paler blue and braille.
    Lloyds TSB produces a black gauge marked with clear white denomination figures into which notes can be slotted.”
    HSBC offer a key ring note gauge:
    “It is a flat plastic oblong with a rim around three sides and three ridges at the top. On the open side you insert the end of your note and depending on which ridge at the top it slots alongside, you know the denomination. The ridges vary in length so that the £5 goes in furthest etc. ”

  • Akismet ate my last comment!

  • Thanks for the wonderful website link, Nicola.
    I am having a terrible time understanding how these monetary aids for the blind work. Do you have any images you can point us to for further examination?
    It sounds so fascinating!

  • Nicola —
    I wonder if Akismet caught you because you were talking about money? I can never predict how or why legit comments get ensnared!

  • I think it automatically treats URLS as spam !
    Here is a picture of one for the Euro
    http://www.caretec.at/typo3temp/pics/f2feaed126.jpg
    I cannot find one from the UK Banks.

  • Hi Nicola —
    Not always! Sometimes the URLs make it through fine. It seems like “Spammy” words dealing with money and such get flagged.
    Okay, thanks for that keen image. I’m still having a hard time figuring out how it works. You put a bill in it and then the thing folds over on it? How is the denomination determined?

  • This is the blurb –
    “Our CashTest is a unique note- and coin gauge, being used by 500.000 blind people in Europe an some overseas countries. It is the size of a credit card and is easy to use. Just insert the bill into the CashTest, bend it over the edge into the measuring zone and read the raised marks at the end of the note with your finger.”

  • Ah! So it embosses Braille on the bill? I guess the folding over is the trick to hit the right dots mark. Fascinating. Thanks so much!

  • I think that is quite a neat idea – from what I saw of the ones offered by the UK banks they are more of a template and measure system – this one looks far better because you can mark your notes at home – instead of having to measure in public.

  • Hi Nicola!
    Very neat! I wish I better knew the size and shape of your money. Then I could more easily conceptualize how the device works.
    I agree measuring at home saves time, but also being able to measure your change live in the field is also a big plus and likely lessens the chance someone will try to short you.

  • Our coinage is quite distinctive – this is the best picture I could find of the full set of coins.
    I cannot find any of the UK banks note gauges on-line.
    There is also mention of cheque writing templates that slide over a cheque so you know where to sign.
    What I can find is a lot of debate about the new chip and pin system for debit and credit cards which doesent work very well at all for those whose sight is impaired.
    The RNIB is working with the banks to issue *signature verify* cards to those on their register.

  • Thanks for sharing your fascinating knowledge, Nicola!
    Once again, it seems the UK takes a kinder route than the USA when it comes to tending humanity.
    UK services for the disabled on a national level are so much better than the USA mandated policy.

  • Hi David,
    It’s sad that people take advantage of others who aren’t in a position to be able to guard their savings and earnings because of disability or other circumstances.
    Our local newspaper ran a sad story about someone who was supposed to help and protect, but who instead took advantage of someone who wasn’t able to help herself, according to the news reports. It was an alert bank official who discovered the abuse, according to the report.

  • I agree with you, Chris. People who take advantage of the disabled and the elderly deserve public flogging and humiliation before they are carted off to the local Panopticonic prison.
    I read your article with heartache and open-mouthed awe at the audacity of that cruel police officer.
    I am so glad the teller stood up for the elderly woman and started an investigation to help her.
    “$1,000 to Meijer” — what is that place and how would one spend a grand there?

  • since our system is oalready set for the same size bill, be it unfashionable or not, let’s consider a change that can help the blind but not kill the taxpayer pocket. why not indentation of the bill amount on the bill. the current bill printing machines need only be retrofit for the imprint. taxpayers cannot afford retrofitting the entire bill printing system. it is not feasible can it be accomplished without governmental overrides , error and expense.

  • Welcome to Urban Semiotic, yvette!
    Thanks for your comment. How much will it cost to retrofit the printing process to allow your embossing method?

  • I’m blind and I’ve never been ripped off by friend or stranger. I don’t think any blind person would argue that having money that is distinguishable by denomination would be a bad thing, however, saying that the current money discriminates against the blind is a bit extreme. I’m not denied services. I spend my money as freely as anyone else. Making money with some sort of mark would be fine, but not under the false idea that it is discrimination.
    also, I’m not sure what sort of encounters you’ve had with blind people in the past, but I don’t know a single person that carries around a whistle and waits for guide to cross the street. We listen to our paralel traffic and cross when the cars next to us go. If a blind person looks completely confused, you wouldn’t be out of line to ask if they needed assistance, but walking up and offering them an elbow ride might get you a rude response if the person is simply waiting for an opportunity to cross.

  • Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Rich, and thanks for the comment.
    My wife and I do work the Deaf and Deaf-Blind. My wife is Deaf. We have had several “live in” service program positions she has managed and/or supervised in New York City. We had Deaf-Blind residents in the building who used whistles, signs and canes to communicate their needs while out on the street.

  • i just wanted to clarify that it is the deafblind community, not the blind, that may stand on the street corner blowing a whistle. the post i was commenting on said nothing about deaf, just blind.
    on another note, money not being distinguishable by the blind can hardly be classified as discrimination. i don’t think any blind person would object to having money that is easily discernable, but we don’t need to change the currency based on a false accusation. if the treasury wants to change the bills next time they make some, that’s fine, but don’t change them for this reason. i spend my money just like anyone else. i’m not denied services. with a 70% unemployment rate amongst the blind, making money accessible seems kind of silly if a great percentage of us don’t even have it to spend. there should be more focus on proper vocational rehabilitation so that the blind can earn money rather than trying to appease us with “helpful” gimmicks.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Rich!

  • Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Xu Liu!
    What a magnificent video! What a beautiful solution!
    Were you involved in its creation?

  • Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Xu Liu!
    What a magnificent video! What a beautiful solution!
    Were you involved in its creation?

  • Thanks David. Yes, I prototyped this for mobileama.com as a summer intern. But now I’ve come back to the question: will this really be helpful to the visually impaired? How many of them carry a camera phone? What’s their current solution (according to the discussion, seems no ideal solution yet)? I’d like to push this into a real product and I hope to hear from the perspective users first. Any comment/suggestion is welcomed. Thanks for urbansemiotic, nice platform.

  • Thanks David. Yes, I prototyped this for mobileama.com as a summer intern. But now I’ve come back to the question: will this really be helpful to the visually impaired? How many of them carry a camera phone? What’s their current solution (according to the discussion, seems no ideal solution yet)? I’d like to push this into a real product and I hope to hear from the perspective users first. Any comment/suggestion is welcomed. Thanks for urbansemiotic, nice platform.

  • For an initial inspiration, Xu Liu, your gadget seems to be quite fine. However, I would be concerned with its prototype size and the fact that it isn’t really private. Do you want to express to the world that you have a $50 bill if you are blind and unaware of the danger lurking behind you? :grin:
    I think something smaller and wireless that might indiscreetly fit over the corner of the bill — one might wear the sending device as a ring — to read the denomination and then transmit a private pulse of vibrations or taps to a receiver the user wears on a wrist or bare arm or shoulder would be the best way to maintain integrity and security and privacy in the exchange.

  • For an initial inspiration, Xu Liu, your gadget seems to be quite fine. However, I would be concerned with its prototype size and the fact that it isn’t really private. Do you want to express to the world that you have a $50 bill if you are blind and unaware of the danger lurking behind you? :grin:
    I think something smaller and wireless that might indiscreetly fit over the corner of the bill — one might wear the sending device as a ring — to read the denomination and then transmit a private pulse of vibrations or taps to a receiver the user wears on a wrist or bare arm or shoulder would be the best way to maintain integrity and security and privacy in the exchange.

  • I have an idea for the disabled. Contact me if you can help.

  • I have an idea for the disabled. Contact me if you can help.

  • Hi christine!
    Tell us your idea!

  • Hi christine!
    Tell us your idea!

  • Christine, please share with us your idea. My best friend’s blind, and I want to help her being more independent.

  • Christine, please share with us your idea. My best friend’s blind, and I want to help her being more independent.

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