Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goodbye greenbacks?

The US currency could be in for more trouble, of quite another kind.

The US is pretty much the only country whose currency bills all have exactly the same shape, size and colour, regardless of denomination -- from $1 to $100.

Actually, in recent years it's almost the same colour. Many were upset a few years ago when delicate pastel shades of other colours were introduced atop the green $20 notes (and, more recently, other notes), but you have to strain to make out the other colours: the visually impaired wouldn't be able to. Indeed, the blind or nearly-blind can't distinguish the notes in any way. (The 2004 biopic of Ray Charles, "Ray", portrayed the blind singer in his younger days demanding to be paid in $1 notes, since he wouldn't be able to count them otherwise.)

Now, in response to a lawsuit launched by the American Council of the Blind, a US appeals court has declared the near-identical nature of the notes to be discriminatory against the blind.

What happens next will be very interesting... I wonder whether, rather than resize or recolour the notes, the US Treasury will choose to emboss the denomination in Braille? Will that be possible or practical?


Anonymous said...


km said...

I have no doubt that they will figure out a solution.

What surprises me is that it has taken them this long to arrive at this conclusion. I mean, every FOB in America at least once talks about how all dollar bills look exactly the same.

Unknown said...

The Euro was specifically designed with the needs of the visually impaired in mind, and notes are of different sizes. The U.S. doesn't want such an obvious solution, claiming it would cost around $4 billion to modify / replace all the machines across that country which accept paper money.

But Canadian paper money is all the same size, just as the U.S.'s is; however, in Canada there are ways in which the blind are helped handle paper money. Raised dots are embossed on each note - they're on the top right corner (the dots are not Braille, the use of which was rejected because that much detailed information was unecessary).

Even with the larger simpler non-Braille dots, a complaint in Canada is that with prolonged use, the dots wear down and can't be easily felt. The Bank of Canada has promised improvements with the next series of notes (expected in 2011), perhaps on the lines of the Euro where different patterns of finger-detectable metal foil stripes make it possible to tell one note from another by feel.

In the meantime, the Canadian government subsidizes a small pocket reader, which any legally blind Canadian can get free of charge. This gadget scans Canadian currency notes and announces the denomination (and for those who are also hard of hearing, it can do so by vibrations instead of speaking).

So solutions are certainly possible, and the U.S. could easily adopt some of these at relatively low cost. If they wanted to, that is; just as if they wanted to, they could adopt the metric system. Does anyone think they will???