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Options for blind investigated

Newscasts and news articles gloated that the Treasury Department has to redesign currency to accommodate the blind, or more politically correct, the visually impaired. U.S. District Judge James Robertson determined in November 2006, that the federal government has not taken adequate steps to assist the visually impaired. In fact, the judge cited discrimination, ?American money represents an unfair impediment to the blind, and the Treasury Department must come up with new currency to help the visually impaired use cash.?

The $50 was the second U.S. bank note to be released in  a redesign effort started with the $20 in 2003.

NN0109fifty.jpgJudge Robertson?s ruling threw down the gauntlet to the Feds. The Treasury in a quick response appealed the judge?s decision. The Treasury cited the costs of new production machinery and enlisted the National Automatic Merchandising Association, which will incur extensive costs if U.S. currency is manufactured in multiple sizes. Judge Robertson will rule on Treasury?s appeal in January 2007.

?There are 1.5 million food and beverage machines in the U.S. that accept both $1 and $5 bills.? It will cost ?an estimated $200 to $300 to retrofit each machine.? (Fox News/Washington Times, November 2006)

The Judge will have to weigh the significant costs or have his staff parse the economics involved in the appeal.

Judge Robertson did not decree what changes will have to be considered by Treasury and its Bureau of Engraving and Printing. However, upon reviewing the appeal of the Treasury, Judge Robertson may be compelled to suggest changes and ask for specific costs and the ramifications of specific alternatives.

Varying sizes for U.S. bank notes was the course of action most bandied about.  Judge Robertson: ?…all U.S. currency [being] the same size and texture violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs.?

The judge and most pundits, who have weighed in on the decision, cite that 180 countries print currency to accommodate in some fashion those who are visually impaired. ?More than 100 of the other issuers vary their bills in size according to denomination.? (Judge Robertson)

Those are interesting statistics.  However, as is true with most statistics, it does not tell the complete story. If we exclude China and India, countries that print extensive denominations of paper money, the U.S. prints a proportionally major amount of world currency. The BEP prints some 8 to 9 billion notes a year. Although totals vary each year, the United States produces some 10-15 percent of all currency manufactured by 178 countries combined. Further, U.S. currency remains in circulation longer than other world currencies due to economic exigencies as well as the durability of the notes. This will have a significant impact on potential redesign features.

The average value of U.S. currency printed is $18.04, a 95 percent increase in the past 20 years. The percentage of notes circulating outside the U.S. is ?66 percent due primarily because 90 percent of $100 notes are whisked away to foreign banks.? Further, ?$100 bills account for over 72 percent of the value of all U.S. currency being printed, up from 54 percent in 1992.? (Nilson Report, September 2006) These significant facts will weigh in the alternatives to be considered.

Many critics do not realize that the BEP is a self-sustaining operation. It operates on a commercial cost-accrual accounting system the same as any commercial printer. The BEP charges clients for the products produced. The Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Postal Service were BEP?s major customers. Recently, the USPS terminated its contract with the BEP, leaving the FRB as the single major customer. The BEP does make a profit on printing products.

Consequently, if there is an increase in the cost of producing currency to implement new means to assist the visually impaired, the costs will be borne by the BEP ? without an appropriation from the Congress ? and passed on to the FRB.

A little known fact is that the BEP exists only as long as it is competitive in the production of U.S. currency. This fact is part of the enabling legislation for the BEP, passed some 140-plus years ago.

When Treasury (BEP and the Secret Service) and the FRB in 1983 ratcheted up their efforts to effect a redesign of U.S. currency to thwart counterfeiting based on the surprising ability of economically priced photocopiers, they did so with a subset of adding features that would assist the visually impaired. I was surprised that the 1991 series of U.S. currency did not incorporate some features that would assist the visually impaired.

The issue of being legally blind or simply visually impaired is somewhat contentious. Probably, it is best to use the legal term, ?legally blind,? when discussing blindness. These people cannot ?read? currency. The visually impaired embraces a broader spectrum of people who have trouble ?reading? or determining whether a piece of paper is currency and, if so, what denomination.

For the sake of Judge Robertson?s ruling, I would use the term, ?visually impaired,? as it is all-encompassing and quite definitive of the problem that some people have in recognizing or differentiating U.S. currency. I would not use ?blind? and ?visually impaired? interchangeably.

Most people who are legally blind become so later in life, due to a number of various causes, mostly medically related. For currency redesign to assist the visually impaired, Braille, as a feature has limited use.

In a USA Today guest editorial, Dec. 14, 2006, Marc Maurer, president of the 50,000-member National Federation for the Blind,? stated: ?U.S. District Judge James Robertson was wrong when he ruled that U.S. currency discriminates against blind people … Discrimination occurs when someone is barred from enjoying benefits, goods or services … Blind people are not barred from spending money …?

The Randolph-Shepherd Act of 1936, and as updated in 1970, provides that free space be given to the visually impaired in federal and state buildings where the population merits it for a (newspaper and candy) stand, store or cafeteria. The basic amount is 200 square feet. The greater the population, the larger the space allocated. I remember discussing currency issues with the visually impaired staffing the stands. Only a few were ever ripped off by customers using counterfeit currency. Most clients even suggested the denomination of the notes they were tendering.

However, most of the visually impaired staffing the stands stated that they were often ?short? in their tills at the end of the day or week. They were ?stiffed,? as one staffer explained. They stated they needed a device to both authenticate and differentiate U.S. currency.

Options for the Treasury/BEP

There are a number of options available that the BEP might incorporate into currency to assist the visually impaired.  There are possibly a number more that BEP options have investigated and would consider. Those most frequently discussed are:
1. Eliminate the dollar bill.
2. Change the size of U.S. notes.
3. Develop a machine to read denominations of U.S. currency.
4. Incorporate raised dots on currency, Braille-style.
5. Punch holes in U.S. currency.
6. Trim the corners of U.S. notes.
7. Clip edges of U.S. currency.

Eliminate the dollar bill

The proponents of a dollar coin will rejoice in this alternative to provide a benefit to the visually impaired in determining the value of money. Dollar coins exist, and the ability for the Mint to produce additional dollar coins are in place. The visually impaired can quickly sense the size, weig ht and denomination of a dollar coin. Inasmuch as the dollar bill is 47 percent of U.S. currency, one would suppose that 47 percent of the concerns of the visually impaired would be resolved.

The elimination of the dollar note will allow Treasury/BEP to concentrate their efforts and expertise on the remaining denominations of U.S. currency.  If Treasury has appealed Judge Robertson?s decision based on cost, the elimination of the dollar bank note will reduce the costs by 47 percent, equal to the amount of U.S. currency produced annually.

Dollar coins cost more to produce than dollar bills, but a dollar coin remains in circulation for 16 to 18 years, while a dollar note has a life of 16 months at most.

Change size of U.S. notes

Phew! I shudder with the BEP officials at this alternative. The costs of implementing are enormous.  

The current presses that the BEP has could be used to print various-sized currency notes.  However, new designs would have to be developed and new plates produced. The second-tier machinery would have to be redesigned or purchased to sort, band, and inspect currency.

BEP officials have to be seriously concerned about this proposal.

It is simplistic to state that 100 other countries easily produce bank notes of various sizes. Most of the countries run their presses only a limited time each day, whereas the BEP runs 24/7. Those countries that use commercial bank note printers to manufacture their currency pay dearly for the process.

Machines to read currency

I have long been a proponent of this alternative to enhance the ability of the visually impaired to both differentiate the denominations of currency and authenticate the individual bank notes.

In 1985 or 1986, I was directed to make a presentation to the blind gathered in Las Vegas, Nev., for their annual convention. I had just returned from a business trip to Europe and only had time to repack. On the plane flight from Washington, D.C., I prepared some remarks. I was ready to discuss the limited scenario of alternatives we had for the visually impaired. The convention was held at the Holiday Inn, just off the Strip. The convention room was cavernous. I was surprised at the number of conventioneers who attended my presentation.  For them, the issue of adopting currency for the visually impaired was obviously a serious issue.  

The first alternative I discussed was the hand-held device used by the Canadians for their currency. The device could read the denomination printed across the top of the Canadian bank note.  

At the conclusion of my talk, I was immediately confronted by the comment, ?We do not need another device to carry around.? That pretty much summed up the discussion on a machine to ?read? the currency denomination. I then discussed the costs and effectiveness of other alternatives. The bottom line was that I did not satisfy the needs of visually impaired. I then determined to seek means to incorporate into currency to aid the visually impaired.

But frankly, I knew that the technology of machine readable devices was on the cusp of being cost-effective and a manageable solution. In fact, this technology was at that time part of ATM machines and commercial change machines.

Today, with micro chips, a credit card-sized device or something slightly larger could be used to read currency and announce that the note is genuine and of what denomination. The device could be carried in one?s wallet or as part of a money-clip. The BEP would have to spearhead such technology.

The BEP could use current designs of notes or simply add an overt or covert feature to currency notes at a fraction of any estimated costs. The technology could consist of a barcode, encoding on the embedded strip, or printed with visible or invisible ink on the surface of the substrate. The BEP has had that technology since the mid-1980s.

The advantage is that no new machines would have to be purchased and commercial ATM and currency authentication manufacturers could use the technology additionally in their verifiers.

My wife passed through Midway Airport in Chicago in mid-December 2006. She tendered a $50 bill to a visually impaired man staffing a small coffee/snack stand in the baggage claim area.  He ran the bill through a small machine to determine the amount. He then provided the exact change and coffee.

Braille dots on bank notes

Raised Braille dots have been used by a number of countries, even in addition to varying size of their notes.  Even though the majority of the visually impaired become so later in life, they can learn to discern the number of dots with relative ease. One to six dots would be required.

The cost to the BEP would be minimal, as the raised dots would be deeper engravings on steel plates. However, the printing of deeper engravings does cause problems on the operation floor of the BEP as the new I-10 presses are designed to run at high speeds. The speed may be designed for shallow engravings.

The downside to this alternative is the life of U.S. notes in circulation. As the substrate grows limp from constant use and transfer among citizens and vendors, the engraved printing is diminished in size and the tactile effect. This would be particularly true of the lower denomination bank notes $1-$20 that are most commonly used.  

Punch holes, clip corners, notch notes

In presentations to the government, spokespersons for the visually impaired have advocated punching holes in currency, clipping or rounding the corners, or notching the sides. All are tactile alternatives and demand some proficiency on the part of the visually impaired. But, it is something that can be learned.

The exegesis of the manufacturing of paper or cotton substrates, would show that the deterioration of the substrate increases remarkably when the substrate is less than whole.  

The quality of the substrate is a priority not only to the BEP, but also to currency verifying machine manufacturers and the consumer.  

U.S. currency substrate deterioration will cause bank notes to wear out more quickly, thus increasing production and costs to the FRB. Deteriorated currency will not be able to be used in vending machines, or as the holes or clipped and notched edges grow, vending machines will not accept the currency.

Simply put, punched holes, clipped corners or notched edges to currency is decidedly not advantageous to the BEP, FRB or the consumer.

What should be done?

Judge Robertson has undoubtedly made a contribution to the visually impaired by demanding that Treasury/BEP do something to allow the visually impaired to differentiate the denominations of U.S. currency. However, I would advocate that additional consideration be given to allow the visually impaired to authenticate currency.

The most cost-effective alternative may not be best for the visually impaired.  As in many manufacturing processes, initial start-up costs are recouped or diminish over time ? and the BEP has time, as it celebrates 144 years of existence.

As both an interested observer and former BEP official, I advocate the use of several technologies that will withstand the test of time, say 10 to 15 years.

Robert J. Leuver is a retired director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

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