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Government Helping the Visually Impaired ‘Read’ US Currency

December 10, 2013

It Took a Law Suit, but It Is Getting Done
Article by Robert Longley

New US $100 bill issued October 8, 2013 adds colorful elements, but no tactile features for the blind and visually impaired will be added to bills until at least 2020.

With free electronic currency readers and radically redesigned bills, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is moving forward with its court-mandated plan to help blind and visually impaired individuals accurately determine the face value of U.S. paper currency.


Imagine you are blindfolded and handed a U.S. $1 bill and a U.S. $100 bill. You get to keep one. Without peeking, how do you choose which bill to keep? For blind and visually impaired people, this is a very real and potentially expensive problem.

While facing less of a problem with coins because of their differing sizes, weights and raised surface features, visually impaired people find it difficult, if not impossible to tell one denomination of paper currency from another. Along with the inconvenience, this places the visually impaired in constant danger of being maliciously “short changed.”

Their problem became the federal government’s problem in May 2002, when the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and two visually impaired persons filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that United States currency violated the rights of the blind and visually impaired under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In October 2008, the District Court ruled that the Department of the Treasury must provide “meaningful access” to U.S. currency for blind and visually impaired persons in its next currency redesign.

Along with agreeing to develop and employ new “meaningful access” currency design features, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing also proposed a federally-funded program to provide free handheld electronic currency readers to eligible blind and visually impaired people.

New Currency Design Features

On May 31, 2011, then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner gave the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) the go-ahead to apply new design features to U.S. currency intended to help blind and visually impaired persons determine the denomination of the various bills. Under current law, the new features can only be applied to $5 and larger denomination bills. Changes to the existing $1 bill are currently prohibited by law.

During the design of the new features, the BEP consulted closely with blind and visually impaired individuals and advocacy groups. The design feature they came up with include:

  • Tactile Features: New bills will feature raised tactile features unique to each different denomination to provide people with a means of each denomination via touch.
  • High Contrast Numbers: Bigger, bolder, high-contrast numerals of a color unique to each denomination will be added to the new bills.

But don’t expect these features to show up on U.S. currency anytime soon. While the new $100 bill first issued on October 8, 2013 features a larger, bright gold “100” and other colorful elements mainly intended to thwart counterfeiting, no tactile features are included. In fact, according to a White Paper Regarding Meaningful Access to U.S. Currency for Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals released by the BEP on June 27, 2013, the larger numerals and tactile features will not be added to U.S. currency until 2020 at the earliest.

“At this time, testing for a potential application method is being conducted at contractor sites, before the BEP acquires any additional equipment required to add tactile features to Federal Reserve notes,” states the BEP white paper. “Any acquisition will only proceed once an application method has been selected. The BEP will do all that it can to accelerate the acquisition of this equipment while complying with the requirements to the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”

The Currency Reader Program

On June 7, 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) approved the BEP’s plan to purchase handheld, electronic currency readers and distribute them free of charge to eligible blind and sight impaired U.S. citizens and legal permanent (green card) residents.

On September 30, 2013, the BEP subsequently issued a Request for Proposal (BEP-RFP-14-0256) to buy and initial quantity of 127,000 currency readers. “The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) may use appropriated funds to purchase and give currency readers to blind and visually impaired individuals as part of its compliance with a federal district court order to provide such individuals with meaningful access to U.S. currency,” noted the GAO in its report. “BEP’s proposed approach is reasonable and consistent with BEP’s statutory mission.

The BEP plans to launch the free currency reader distribution program in 2015.

But There Are Already Apps for That

No need to wait until 2015, because the BEP in collaboration with the Department of Education has already developed four free currency reader apps for mobile devices. The four apps available so far are: EyeNote® and LookTel Money Reader for Apple iOS; IDEAL Currency Identifier for Google Android, and knfb Reader Mobile for Nokia Symbian.

These currency reader apps have been developed in conjunction with, rather than in lieu-of other accommodation efforts to be implemented in the future. “The apps simply provide a quicker option for the public, who are increasingly using mobile devices, while the Government develops a currency reader program and the raised tactile and large, high-contrast numeral features to be included in the next U.S. currency note designs,” states the BEP.

More information:
American Council for the Blind v. Secretary of the Treasury - November 28, 2006

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