Intersection of Disability and Race for Black Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

by Sandra Sermons, Director of Accessibility Services, National Black Disability Coalition

Opening Statement

The United States is one of the few countries that prints all denominations of currency in the same size. Needless to say, this sameness of size makes it impossible for a blind person to locate the correct bills to make a purchase without some sort of assistance or confirm that he or she has been given the correct change by the salesclerk.

A 2002 lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind (ACB), resulted that the Treasury Department must make US currency accessible to blind and visually impaired Americans under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A key component of the determination was that the next new bill to be printed would be accessible.

The next new currency is the Harriet Tubman bill. Advocacy to ensure the bill is accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals that is most acceptable for the majority of the blind community is still questionable.  For black blind and visually impaired people this is a dilemma.  Should we have to choose between our racial heritage and equal access?  Both the blind community and the black community are our communities. We do not want to go against brother to brother in either community.

Talking Points

1. The ability to distinguish denominations of paper currency is an essential part of independence.

2. All of the industrialized countries and most of the developing world (including Bangladesh) recognize the significance of being able to distinguish between paper notes independently and therefore have different sizes of paper currency, thereby allowing their citizens who are blind or visually impaired to independently determine the value of paper currency.

3. The United States is the richest nation in the world.  Yet we still do not have an effective means of determining currency for blind and visually impaired individuals without the use of a machine which must be carried by the individual.

4. The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973 and the American’s with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.  Yet, it is still impossible for blind and visually impaired individuals to independently determine the value of paper currency without the use of an iBill (currency reader.)  This is despite the fact that given technological advances, the accommodations can be made seamlessly.

5. Rather than making this accommodation, the Department of the Treasury still insists that blind and visually impaired individuals carry currency readers (iBills).  While they may be free of charge, you still must complete documentation in order to obtain one and it is yet one more thing that must be carried.  This solution still puts the burden on the person who is blind or visually impaired rather than the built environment itself (currency.)

6. Black blind and visually impaired individuals should not have to choose between their racial heritage and equal access civil rights.

7.  Apps for scanning are not viable tools for everyone who is blind or visually impaired. Fewer than 20% of the population do not carry a smartphone. It is an equity issue that only examines perspectives of cost-benefits.


Below is a timeline of The Meaningful Access Currency initiative.

May 2002

The American Council of the Blind (ACB) along with two individuals who are visually impaired filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, alleging that the currency of the United States violates the rights of people who are blind or visually impaired because they cannot determine the denominations of paper currency.

ACB stated that the Department of the Treasury and [then] Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, which was enacted to ensure that people with disabilities can live independently and fully participate in society.

May 2008

A federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Treasury Department discriminates because it has failed to design and issue paper currency “readily distinguishable to people with poor sight.” By a 2-1 vote, the court upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge James Robertson in a lawsuit filed by ACB against the U.S. Department of the Treasury (American Council of the Blind v. Paulson).

The appeals court rejected the department of the Treasury’s arguments that accommodating ACB’s proposals would impose an undue burden on the government and returned the case to Judge Robertson to address the organization’s request for relief. ACB proposed several possible changes to U.S. currency, including different-sized bills for each denomination, embossed dots, and raised printing.

October 2008

The District Court ruled that the Secretary of the Department of the Treasury “violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” and required the Secretary to “take such steps as may be required to provide meaningful access to United States currency for people who are blind or visually impaired” in the next currency redesign. The Court also directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to file status reports every six months, describing the steps taken to implement the Order and Judgment.

August 2009

As part of its effort “to create meaningful access to currency for people who are blind or visually impaired,” BEP announced the results of a comprehensive study analyzing options to assist people who are blind or visually impaired “in distinguishing U.S. currency.” The study consisted of three phases:

  • Phase One: Conducted data analysis and gathered information regarding the demographics of the blind and visually impaired community.
  • Phase Two: Examined different technologies, features, and methods currently available.
  • Phase Three: Provided an economic cost/benefit analysis of a range of accommodation options.

May 2010

The Department of the Treasury and BEP issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register to inform the public of the features BEP was proposing to the Secretary of the Treasury and to solicit public comment on the proposed accommodations:

  • Raised Tactile Feature: As part of the next currency redesign, BEP will develop and deploy a raised tactile feature. The tactile feature will be unique to each denomination and will provide users with a means of identifying each denomination by touch.
  • Large, High-Contrast Numerals: BEP will continue its practice of adding large, high-contrast numerals and different and distinct color schemes to each denomination to assist citizens who are visually impaired.
  • Supplemental Currency Reader Program: BEP also proposes to recommend a supplemental process to distribute currency readers to blind and visually impaired persons at no cost.
  • In addition, BEP will continue to explore emerging technology solutions to provide access to U.S. currency, such as the development of software to enable people who are blind or visually impaired to fully access U.S. currency.

The public comment period closed on August 18, 2010.

June 2010

As part of the public comment process, the BEP hosted two public forums simultaneously at its Washington, DC and Fort Worth, Texas facilities.

April 2011

BEP developed an app, called EyeNote, to assist persons who are blind or visually impaired in identifying U.S. currency. EyeNote, designed for Apple iOS, scans a bank note and communicates its value back to the user, via image recognition technology. The app is available as a free download on the Apple iTunes Store and a data connection is not required.

May 2011

[Then] Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner approved the methods that the Department of the Treasury will use to provide individuals who are blind or visually impaired with meaningful access to U.S. currency. The Secretary approved the following accommodations, which are based on feedback from the study and the public:

  • Raised Tactile Feature: Adding a raised tactile feature to U.S. currency unique to each Federal Reserve note that it may lawfully change. Currently, U.S. law prohibits any changes to the $1 Federal Reserve note.
  • Large High-Contrast Numerals: Continuing the program of adding large high contrast numerals and different colors to each denomination.
  • Supplemental Currency Reader Program: Implementing a supplemental currency reader distribution program for U.S. citizens who are blind or visually impaired and those legally residing in the U.S.

June 2012

The Senate Committee on Appropriations issued Senate Report 112-177, which directed BEP to provide a detailed plan, including a timeline, to develop, design, test, and print currency with accessibility features.

August 2012

The U.S. Court of Appeals denied ACB’s motion to amend the court’s 2008 judgment. ACB had requested that the court direct the Secretary of the Treasury to furnish specific dates by which the currency will be redesigned. ACB had also requested that the Secretary submit a detailed implementation plan describing specific steps to implement three accommodations to provide meaningful access to U.S. currency.

The court ordered the Secretary of the Treasury to continue to file semi-annual reports and to continue to work “diligently and expeditiously” to fulfill its obligations to provide meaningful access to U.S. currency for persons who are blind or visually impaired.

The court also ordered the Secretary to inform the court promptly of any additional delays in implementing the next major currency redesign and to be as precise as possible in its semi-annual reports about the timeline for fulfilling its obligations.

July 2013

In place of Senate Report 112-177, BEP submitted the Meaningful Access to U.S. Currency for individuals who are blind or Visually Impaired to the Department of the Treasury and the Senate Committee on Appropriations. The Meaningful Access Plan explains BEP’s progress and path forward in detail.

July 2014

The BEP outlined its plans to launch the currency reader program at three conferences: the  American Council of the Blind Annual Conference in Las Vegas Nevada; National Federation of the Blind Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida;, and the Blinded Veterans Association Annual Conference in Reno, Nevada.

September 2014

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, entitled Currency Reader Program Should Be Evaluated While Other Accessibility Features for Visually Impaired Persons Are Developed, stating that BEP had fallen behind schedule in its plans to produce U.S. currency with raised tactile markings. Concerns included cost, durability of tactile features, and the ability to process tactile bills through currency-counting equipment. BEP estimated that currency with tactile features could be delayed until 2020.

Due to the delay, GAO encouraged the government to focus on distributing currency readers while the plan for a tactile feature was developed. BEP expects to spend $35 million over the next several years distributing currency readers free of charge to persons who are visually impaired.

September 2014

From September 2, 2014 to December 31, 2014, in partnership with the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), the BEP conducted a four-month pilot program, in which NLS patrons could pre-order a currency reader. The Treasury Department selected the iBill Talking Banknote Identifier, also called the iBill Currency Identifier, from Orbit Research.

The pilot program allowed the government to test its ordering and distribution processes and gauge demand for currency readers. Approximately 12,000 NLS patrons pre-ordered a currency reader during the pilot phase.

November 2014

BEP posted the U.S. Currency Reader application to allow the general population of individuals who are blind or visually impaired to apply for an iBill Currency Identifier.

January 2015

The BEP begins to process all applications from eligible blind and visually impaired individuals who are requesting a free iBill Currency Identifier. Individuals interested in receiving a currency reader must apply, signed by a competent authority who can certify eligibility. Applications are available in English and Spanish.

January 2021

iBill Currency Identifiers are available to any eligible person who is blind or visually impaired.


Respectfully Submitted

Sandra Sermons, Director of Accessibility Services

National Black Disability Coalition

[email protected]