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Accessible Currency for the Blind

How Janet Yellen can make history again

Forty years ago, I stopped at a newsstand in midtown Manhattan to search for a magazine. I had not noticed the vendor until he spoke to me: “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

He handed me a one-dollar bill. “How much is this?”

That was the first I noticed he was blind.

“It’s one dollar,” I said, and he groaned.

“The guy told me it was twenty,” he replied, “I believed him. I gave him more than fifteen in change.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I never know who is telling the truth,” he explained.

“The government should do a better job designing our money to keep people from cheating,” I said. “After two hundred years, you’d think we would figure this out.”

I was surprised by his next question: “Are you married?”

“Yes.”

Again, he groaned in a way that communicated deep loneliness. If this theft had unexpectedly brought him a trustworthy friendship it might have taken the edge off his pain. But that was not to be.

The fact is that blind people in America are often dependent on strangers to manage paper money. The vast majority of countries have features on their currency that allow the visually impaired to count their money without requiring honesty from others. In most countries, varying colors and sizes of paper currency show how much each is worth. Some nations provide tactile cues embossed on the surface. The United States stands virtually alone in our failure to make our currency accessible to those who cannot see.

In 2006, the American Council of the Blind persuaded a federal district court judge to rule that our country illegally discriminates by failing to give the visually impaired meaningful access to currency. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld this ruling in 2008, and a federal district court judge issued an injunction requiring the government to provide that access no later than the next redesign for each denomination.

Our government has not yet met the court order that set compliance for 2013. The American Foundation for the Blind describes interim solutions, including commercially designed currency readers and aps for Android and iOS cameras that could help a blind vendor. These require unwrinkled bills, two hands, and digital equipment. Some readers announce the amount of your currency to anyone standing nearby.

We need better solutions that work for sighted clerks, too, including the responsible young man who testified about his sense of guilt for accepting a bill from George Floyd that neither may have known was counterfeit. An embossed strip could help us all recognize legal tender.

The American Council of the Blind supports the effort to redesign the $20 bill to incorporate a portrait of Harriet Tubman. They point out that Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen has already made history as the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve and to become Secretary of the Treasury. She now has a historic obligation under the injunction to instruct the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing to prioritize design of an accessibility feature at the same time they redesign the currency to include Tubman’s portrait.

Harriet Tubman would have demanded nothing less. She knew that no greater inequity exists than a government that privileges some people while disempowering others. Secretary Yellen has the power to help sighted Americans see that we must finally make our nation’s currency accessible to the visually impaired.