Commentary: Including Women and People with Disabilities on New U.S. Banknotes

A lot has been said in the news about the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s decision to include the image of abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bills. This is not the only new feature, however. According to an article in the USA Today, the new bills will also include tactile features to help the blind and visually impaired distinguish each denomination. These changes will be made to all new paper currency in the near future, except the $1 bill. Accessible paper currency is not expected to circulate until at least 2020.

All banknotes are the same size and have no tactile markings in the United States. This makes it virtually impossible for those of us who are blind or severely visually impaired to differentiate each denomination. In 2008, a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Treasury discriminates because it failed to design paper currency “readily distinguishable to people with poor sight.” It’s not that we haven’t found ways to manage money, but I think making paper currency accessible is long overdue. After all, the last significant currency redesign took place in 1928, a time when the needs of people with disabilities were not even considered.

Countries like Canada and Australia already have accessible paper currency. Since 2001, Canada launched paper currency with tactile markings similar to Braille. In Australia, banknotes are different sizes – notes become longer as they increase in value. Of course, making different size bills in the U.S. would present an enormous burden, as all vending machines, ATMs and similar equipment would need to be completely redesigned. Tactile markings are certainly a convenient solution, assuming they are both durable and distinguishable. This is something that the U.S. Treasury is taking into account in the new redesign process.

The ADA is the most comprehensive law protecting individuals with disabilities in the United States. How is it then that banknotes are still not accessible to the blind and visually impaired? Many argue that there are issues far more important affecting those of us with visual impairments, and they are right to a certain extent. With the unemployment rate hovering at an alarming 70 percent, we should keep fighting for more job opportunities for blind and visually impaired Americans. Still, we should also be able to identify the money we earn on those jobs independently without needing special techniques or technology, just like sighted people.

Currency redesigns reflect important places and people in American history, but are also done to meet the needs of those of us using it in the present. Kudos to the U.S. Treasury and countless advocates for striving to include portraits of prominent women and accessibility features on new currency redesigns. Both disability and women’s rights are equally important and deserve recognition by all Americans. If you are interested on finding out more about the process of making U.S. banknotes accessible, this article from our friends at the American Foundation for the Blind is a great source.

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