Should US Bills Be 'Blind Friendly'? ; A Federal Judge Ruled That the Treasury Should Change Paper Currency to Make Denominations Easily Identifiable by the Blind

Article excerpt

Jerry Berrier is a serious bird guy. In 35 years of birding, Mr. Berrier has clocked countless hours trolling the outdoors, listening for the faintest of hums. At his home in Shrewsbury, Mass., he even hooked his computer speakers to microphones in the backyard so he can record the songs of visiting birds. (He uploads these to his website, www.birdblind.org.)

Today, Berrier can identify 35 to 40 birds by their song. But if you put a few crisp bills in his hand, he couldn't tell a $1 bill from a $20 bill. That's because Berrier is blind, and US bills are all the same size and texture.

But paper money could get a makeover that would help people like Berrier. Last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Treasury Department had to consider changing paper currency so denominations could be easily identified by the blind. Current bill design amounts to discrimination, the judge wrote.

Surprisingly, the ruling was not universally embraced by the more than 10 million blind and visually impaired people in America. While few deny that having differentiated bills would make life easier, some say the lawsuit sends a message that the blind are helpless. Opponents also say it detracts from other problems blind people face, such as unemployment and lack of Internet access.

The United States is alone among more than 180 countries in having paper currency that is identical in size and color, the judge wrote. Potential changes to the currency include embossing, punching holes, notching, or making the bills different sizes. The Treasury, which has until the end of this week to appeal the decision, has argued that any change would be costly - estimates range from $75 million for equipment and $9 million in annual expenses to punch holes to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million in annual expenses to print different-size bills.

Berrier calls the ruling "one of the biggest steps forward taken for people who are blind." He remembers accidentally giving a pizza delivery man a $20 tip instead of a $1. (The man told him about the mistake.) When he receives change, Berrier usually stuffs it all in his pocket. At home, his wife identifies bills for him.

Berrier, like many blind people, then uses a folding system, because machines that read denominations aloud are unreliable and expensive ($300). He does not fold $1 bills; he folds fives in half lengthwise, tens in half widthwise, and the twenties twice.

Fellow Massachusetts resident David Ticchi, who uses a different folding system, is not against bills of different sizes. But he's concerned the lawsuit sends a message that blind people can't handle currency - an impression he says might hurt blind job seekers by raising employers' concerns about accommodation costs. "Our problem is earning money, not identifying it," Mr. Ticchi says.

Ticchi, a teacher and special assistant to the president of a large Boston-based seafood restaurant chain, says he is proactive about handling money. When he recently bought $27.45 worth of groceries, he told the cashier: "Out of $50. That's $22.55 coming back." Announcing the bill and the change shows competence, he says. …