Where is the Accessible, Tactile Currency?

2 Oct
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Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

Don’t expect to feel accessible features on U.S. paper currency until 2020, a group of officials from the Federal Reserve, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Secret Service said last week at a forum on tactile currency.

While a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2008 that the U.S. Treasury Department violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and mandated that all future redesigns be accessible to the blind, the process involves much more than adding a few cosmetic changes.

Currency is redesigned primarily to push back against the global counterfeiting market, which makes up less than one percent of the total bills in circulation. This process involves several agencies, working groups, cost-benefit studies, and—ultimately—approval from the Secretary of the Treasury. Counterfeit Specialist Tyra McConnell of the Secret Service said that the new accessibility features are strictly cosmetic and will not be used in any way for security purposes.

While the newly designed $100 bill is set to debut at your local bank later this month, it is the last in the family of bills to undergo a redesign. Under public law, the $1 note cannot be redesigned.

“We re-design currency as a family, not individually,” said Larry Felix, Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

As was decided in rules agreed to by the Secretary of the Treasury in 2011, the “Meaningful Access” program (whose name comes directly from language in the 2008 ruling) continues to have three components:

  1. Introduction of tactile features into the next currency design
  2. Continuing the practice of adding large, high-contrast numerals to each bank note
  3. Distribution of hardware and software currency readers to blind and visually-impaired residents

The inclusion of large, high-contrast numerals on each bank note is far from controversial, however the other two areas received the most attention at last Thursday’s forum.

As a June 2013 white paper issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing stated, several accessibility options were considered, “including variable size banknotes, notches, materials embedded in or applied to the surface of the substrate, machine readable materials, and perforations.”

Canadian currency, for example, uses a pattern of full braille cells to allow blind people to discern one bill from another. However, many have reported that these indications are quickly worn down to the point of illegibility after the bill has changed hands only a few times.

By this January, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing will choose the application method for adhering the tactile features to the next generation of bank notes, according to Mr. Felix of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The technology needed to adhere the symbols and the specific material will be purchased by the following January.

While last week’s group made no comments about the specific design, the same white paper indicated that the most likely candidate remains a row of hollow rectangles (to measure 4mm by 6mm) and span across the horizontal edge of the currency. The $50 note would likely have four hollow rectangles, and other denominations would have unique combinations of these shapes.

Michael Lambert, a deputy associate director of the Federal Reserve Board, said last week that a committee had been established to determine the maximum height for these features and would consider the costs associated with modifying counting, sorting, and vending systems already in the marketplace. These systems, he said, use technology that checks for counterfeit currency partially on the basis of a bank note’s height. Furthermore, fewer bills will be able to stack atop one another in a small place, and this may require additional modifications. He did not provide a date when this group would present its findings.

The group of panelists drew quick criticism when it announced that legal residents of the U.S. would be able to receive a small, personal money identifier by next June. On September 30th, just before the end of the fiscal year, the Bureau issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for portable, handheld, and rechargeable technology.

Many people who are blind or have low vision who participated in the meeting voiced opposition to having to register with the National Library Service to receive such an identifier, while others—after expressing frustration with not knowing which bills were in their wallets—applauded the effort.

Those familiar with the iBill Talking Banknote Identifier will note many commonalities with the device being sought by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has reached out to the National Library Service to better understand the current system for lending digital talking book players and perhaps share some of the existing infrastructure for distributing the technology. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued an opinion that it would be acceptable for the Department of the Treasury to transfer ownership of the devices to the recipients, which differs from the current “loan” status of digital talking book players.

In addition to procuring a hardware solution, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing released apps for the iOS (EyeNote) and Android (IDEAL Currency Identifier). The apps have been downloaded more than 13,000 times since their launch in 2010. Mr. Felix said that many people who are using these apps now likely will not request a handheld identifier.

The lifespan of each bank note ranges from 3.7 to 15 years, so Shaun Ferrari, Assistant Director with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, warned everyone to expect a prolonged period of accessible and “flat” bills in circulation.

Most of what the executive branch officials shared last week is contained in a 14-page white paper entitled, “White Paper Regarding Meaningful Access to U.S. Currency for Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals” published this past June.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing welcomes feedback from the blind and low-vision communities via e-mail at meaningfulaccess@bep.gov.

What are your reactions to the potential design of tactile currency? Do you plan to request a portable money identifier from the government next year? Teachers, are your students excited?

The following two tabs change content below.
Corbb O'Connor
Corbb, a blind entrepreneur, coordinates the outreach and marketing efforts for the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University as an independent consultant.

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