NCD Letter to Treasury Secretary about Including Accessibility in New Dollar Bills

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April 28, 2016

The Honorable Secretary Lew
United States Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20220

Dear Secretary Lew,

The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and the nation on matters pertinent to national disability policy. We seek to ensure that the rights of an estimated 59 million Americans, approximately one in every five families in this nation are preserved, and that as our country’s economy, culture and technology develop, that Americans with disabilities are fully included in the fabric of our nation.  

In 2008, in the case of American Council of the Blind v. Paulson, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals confirmed that in its current state, American paper currency violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and ordered the lower court to construct a methodology for rendering paper currency in the United States accessible to people with disabilities. The mandate included a regular reporting requirement to the court, and a number of federal agencies became involved in design and implementation plans to render the currency accessible. An estimated 20 million plus Americans with blindness, low vision, intellectual and developmental disabilities are impacted, and the aging population who need accessible currency increases this number exponentially. It is important to note that United States currency is one of the few currencies in the world that are not accessible, and that many of the nations in the world have undertaken extensive research and modifications to their currency in order to ensure that people with disabilities are not disadvantaged and discriminated against in the use of this critical part of everyday life. Indeed, an inability to exchange paper currency means that people with disabilities around the world who use United States currency are prevented from engaging in the most basic of the underpinnings of world culture and economy.  Without the ability to discern the denomination on paper currency, people with disabilities are unable to determine whether their hard earned cash is being safely exchanged, and this inability undoubtedly inhibits participation in all the elements of society, including transportation, employment, education and social interaction.

For the last 8 years, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Federal Reserve, Treasury and Secret Service have been developing a series of braille cells, which are to be attached to the paper currency in a sequence that will allow anyone to determine the denomination of the bill by touch.  Simply put, the plan was to use one braille cell for the five dollar bill, two for the ten, and so on, leaving the one dollar bill unmarked. The National Council on Disability represented our stakeholders of approximately 59 million Americans with disabilities at a series of meetings to discuss the design and development of the tactile feature.  In 2013, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing assured us that the tactile feature would be included in the redesigned ten dollar bill to be released this spring. At the same time as the tactile feature was designed, the Bureau developed and began to distribute ‘readers’ and applications for cell phone use that allows blind and low vision users to scan the face of existing bills to determine their denomination. While this could not possibly replace the seamless exchange of money that people without disabilities can maintain, the application and readers were contemplated as an interim measure, given the period of time that will be necessary to exchange the approximately 32 billion pieces of American currency currently in circulation. As recently as this week, the Bureau requested assistance from NCD in promoting awareness and information about the readers, which are available free of charge, and of the applications.

The National Council on Disability was both surprised and concerned that the recent announcement regarding redesign of currency completely excludes any mention of inclusion of tactile features on any of the future bills, and the Bureau’s subsequent confirmation that the ten dollar bill will not carry the tactile feature as promised.  While the public has been effectively engaged in selecting the face of the person who will hold the privileged place on American currency, accessibility features are once again, completely ignored.  

The National Council on Disability also notes that you have directed accelerated development of redesign on the 1, 5, and 20 dollar bills.  Again, no mention of accessibility features are included, or apparently, being considered.  We respectfully request that the work necessary to include accessibility features be similarly expedited, and that the public be informed and engaged on this important, inclusive, and very positive feature.

The issue of accessible paper currency in this nation is a critical issue of civil rights for millions of Americans with disabilities, and has been litigated and confirmed by the courts.  The National Council on Disability therefore respectfully requests that the Treasury Department clarify and confirm that tactile features will be incorporated into every redesign and introduction of currency going forward (including the ten dollar bill redesign as ordered by the court).  We recommend that future press releases include mention of this important recognition of civil rights and that press releases include information regarding the availability of interim application and free reader with links directing the public to sites where they can obtain readers or download the applications.  

Integration of tactile features into American currency will assist not only Americans with disabilities, but people with disabilities who utilize United States currency all around the globe. Those without disabilities will, similar to the full use and integration of the curb cut, soon be able to be even more efficient as the inclusion of tactile features will speed facility of currency use for everyone, disabled or not.  We encourage you to meet with this agency and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at your earliest possible convenience to ensure that the civil rights of millions are protected, and that greater independence is one of the results of the redesign campaign.

Thank you for your attention.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to Joan Durocher at jdurocher@ncd.gov, NCD’s General Counsel and Director of Policy, for further information about this urgent issue.

Respectfully submitted,

Clyde Terry
Chairman