The announcement that a woman will grace the redesigned $10 bill is overshadowing what could be an equally historic change in the way America’s money feels.
The new $10 note is the first slated to have raised elements that will help the blind and visually impaired distinguish between denominations, an accommodation for which disability rights groups have been fighting for decades. The Treasury Department was sued in 2002 over the problem and lost its case after six years of legal wrangling. It has taken even longer to turn the idea into a reality.
“Frankly, I applaud the fact that they’re going to put a woman on the front design,” said Jeffrey Lovitky, the attorney who represented the American Council of the Blind in its case against Treasury. “I would hope that they would keep their promise and keep to their stated intention of also putting the tactile feature on the bill.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters Wednesday that tailoring the $10 bill to the blind was in keeping with the new design's theme of democracy. But he did not specify exactly how the currency would change. Lovitky said his group also has not received details. The new note is slated to be unveiled in 2020.
In other countries, money comes in a rainbow of colors and a variety of sizes and textures. In Australia, each denomination is a different length and features large, bold numerals and high-contrast color. Hong Kong’s currency incorporates Braille at the bottom of every note. The Euro has raised print that is easy to feel.
But U.S. currency is almost uniquely uniform: All of the paper bills are the same size and have the same weight and texture. That makes them nearly indistinguishable to the touch -- and impossible to tell apart without the ability to see.
“There is no way to distinguish a one from a hundred or anything in between,” said Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. “You are fairly dependent on the good graces on anyone you are doing a financial transaction with to be honest.”
Many of the blind have developed workarounds. One of the simplest is folding their bills: $1 bills stay flat, $5 bills are folded lengthwise, $10 bills by width, and $20 bill by length and width. But the system breaks down when someone receives money, say, as change after a purchase.
The advent of debit and credit cards has helped alleviate the problem, but the visually impaired have little ability to ensure that they are charged the correct amount. New electronic currency readers scan paper money for the blind, but the process can still be frustratingly slow.
“For a lot of transactions, there’s a need for cash,” Lovitky said. “There’s a lot of reasons for why cash is still king.”
In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, which required the federal government to ensure that the programs and activities it funds are accessible to people with disabilities. That prompted the American Council of the Blind to begin lobbying Treasury to change the nation’s currency. But after failing to make headway, the group finally filed suit in 2002 and won the case in 2008.
Three years later, then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner approved the changes to currency that would be added to the next bill redesign: a raised feature, high contrast numbers and free currency readers for the visually impaired. In 2013, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing released a detailed plan of action:
The proposed timeline called for officials to choose which elements to add by December 2013 and select the materials early this year. But the Bureau of Engraving and Printing said no decisions have been made.
“We haven’t settled on an actual image, what type of shape it will take,” spokeswoman Lydia Washington said. “This is a very fluid timeline.”
The drawn out process is frustrating advocates for the blind, and Lovitky said he is worried the government will not be able to meet the 2020 deadline.
“The government knows they have to do this,” he said. “But there’s been a lot of bureaucratic foot-dragging going on.”