Sunday, December 03, 2006

If It Feels Like a Dollar ...

The New York Times
If It Feels Like a Dollar ...

Anybody who has ever handed over a $10 bill thinking it was a dollar knows the problem. Unlike the currency in 180 other countries, the American greenback comes in one size, and one dominant color — green. That can be so confusing for the 3.3 million Americans who are either blind or have very poor sight that a United States District Court judge in the District of Columbia ruled last week that the government had unlawfully denied them access to the nation’s paper money.

Changing United States legal tender would be expensive — the government says that redesigning its currency would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It would also pose problems for those who make or use machines that take money for tickets or soft drinks, or change at the Laundromat. And the government’s lawyers have argued that some changes could make it easier to counterfeit United States cash.

Judge James Robertson’s opinion makes it clear that the American government simply has not tried very hard to help those Americans who cannot see their money. The Treasury Department has revamped United States currency design twice in the last 10 years without making any real adaptation for the blind — despite numerous pleas. None of the other objections seem convincing. The machines that take dollars could be adapted; in Europe, they work with currency that comes in a variety of sizes. And some of the additions to bills that help the blind, like embossed dots or raised numerals, are used elsewhere as extra safeguards against counterfeiting.

Judge Robertson wisely resisted telling the Bureau of Engraving and Printing exactly how to make its bills more accessible to the visually impaired. He merely wants officials to return soon to his court and offer a plan. United States currency might come in slightly different sizes or textures for each denomination. Perhaps the money-printing machines in Washington could start on the larger-denomination bills first, leaving the most numerous ones — the singles — the same as ever. However it happens, the change could also be a boon to Americans who are not blessed with 20-20 vision.