Tactile Features Coming to United States Currency

Posted on 6/21/2016

Tactile features and more contrast will be added to the Federal Reserve Note in an effort to aid the blind and visually impaired in identifying different US currency denominations.

United States Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew’s recent announcement of changes to the $5, $10, and $20 Federal Reserve Notes (expected in 2020) heralds many changes coming to United States currency. Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson as the primary portrait on the $20 bill. Martin Luther King, Jr. and women’s suffrage leaders including Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony will make appearances on the backs of the $5 and $10 bills, respectively.

But not all changes to the notes, which will have a theme of “An Era of Democracy,” will be enforced by the government or the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). One decades-old campaign looks forward to its proposed change finally arriving in 2020 to transform the Federal Reserve Note in a way never seen—or felt—before.

Coming off a 2008 victory in a court of appeals, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) will have their demands met for adding tactile features and more contrast to the new series of notes to aid the blind and visually impaired in identifying the different denominations of US currency.

The ACB alleged in the case American Council of the Blind v. Henry M. Paulson that the past omissions of tactile features violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 makes it “illegal for federal agencies...to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities.” It has frequently been called upon to settle disputes in the physical realm of disabilities, such as wheelchair access to public places and the allocation of educational resources to students with disabilities.

Paulson, the defendant in the case, was Secretary of the Treasury at the time of the hearing.

Tactile features of 500- and 200-Euro notes.
Click image to enlarge.

The case was first argued on November 28, 2006. Federal Judge James Robertson ruled in favor of the ACB and ordered that the organization work together with the Treasury to create a solution (This initial ruling was then upheld in 2008 by a three-judge panel in a court of appeals). Robertson cited the inconvenience many visually impaired people face when attempting to identify Federal Reserve Note denominations, including placing bills under acute magnification and relying on cashier identification when receiving change. He went on to say that of more than 180 countries that issue paper money, only the United States issues theirs in congruent sizes and identical coloration for all denominations.

Qatar, Pick#31 Note, front.
Click image to enlarge.

Indeed, the addition of tactile and highly contrasting features will be entirely new to US currency. These features for US banknotes come years—and in some cases decades—after dozens of other countries have issued entire series of notes consisting of helpful indicators for the visually impaired. Countries such as Tanzania, China, and Qatar utilize small, engraved shapes near the edges of their notes that correspond to denomination. For example, Qatar Pick 31, above, possesses four thick, vertical lines at the left edge to indicate the note has a face value of 50 riyals. The previous notes in this series from 2008—the 1-riyal, 5, and 10—have one, two, and three lines, respectively.

2015 Maldives Note, Pick Unlisted.
Click image to enlarge.

More recently, Maldives’ 2015 issues employ compact, hardnosed crests stamped into each note’s polymer body in varying shapes to help discern denomination. The troughs of each indentation are faintly visible (but easily felt) as a circular shape at the left of the whale shark’s head on the back of the Pick-unlisted 1000-Rufiyaa note.

The backs of Singapore Pick#49 (left), and Pick#51 (right).
Click images to enlarge.

Surface area and color play roles in identification, too. China has coordinated the size of their notes with denomination since 1953 and has kept this process into their most recent 2005 series. Chinese notes also largely vary by color, in addition to size — a practice of many countries, including Sweden and Kuwait in recent years. The backs of Singapore’s Pick 49 (left) and 51 (right) are shown side by side above. In addition to different sizes and colors, they also host prominent design changes to help provide contrast.

$5 1988A Federal Reserve Note Cleveland, front,
PMG Graded 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ.
Click image to enlarge.

This latter point is one that adds to the heaping pile of obstacles that the visually impaired face when identifying US currency. As mentioned in the court case’s background, the designs of US currency are consistent throughout, with similar locations of portraits and seals on the front and government edifices on the backs of all denominations except the $1 and $2 bills. Additionally, the green-and-black color scheme, congruent size, and lack of heavily-engraved features have led to the visually impaired folding their bills in distinct ways to differentiate them by denomination. The community in effect has relied on creating its own tactile schemes, as the BEP has failed to add any to the notes themselves.

Fortunately, another result of American Council of the Blind v. Henry M. Paulson is more immediate than the impending currency release in 2020. On May 31, 2011, Timothy F. Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury at the time, approved the BEP’s request for the federal government to distribute electronic currency readers to visually impaired US citizens at no charge. The readers, some small enough to fit in a pocket, can speak the denomination of a note when it is scanned through the reader’s sensor. They can also vibrate or produce distinct, flat tones to differentiate.

Canada BC-58d, back.
Click image to enlarge.

For the long term, it appears the BEP has determined to use a similar tactile functionality to Canada’s, which began with the Bank of Canada’s 1986-1991 series. The back of Canada BC-58d shows the design, which intersperses tangible prisms of ink in alternating locations and rhythms through the serial numbers based on denomination.

No changes to the $1 Federal Reserve Note are planned for 2020—neither updates to the design nor tactile additions. This is because a recurring footnote in the “Administrative Provisions” sections of the yearly budget enacted by Congress does not allow for any funds available to the US Treasury, no matter how they are collected, to be used to redesign the $1 bill.

The BEP’s resolution is planned more than a decade after the court ruling and almost two decades after the ACB initially filed suit against the Treasury Department in 2002. But it coincides well with the “An Era of Democracy” theme for the planned 2020 series in that the additions are the direct result of an American right to challenge the government’s failure of upholding a federal law. However the BEP satisfies the court’s demand of them, may their choice of tactile feature be effective, perceptible, and bestow its own mark on an already historic overhaul of the United States of America’s paper money.


PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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