Memphian Stephanie Jones usually asks her husband or children to tell her what denomination her paper money is before handing it to a cashier. Jones is blind, and like many visually impaired Americans, she cannot distinguish which bill is which without help.
Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a 2006 decision that the U.S. Department of the Treasury discriminates against the blind because paper money is not distinguishable by touch. The decision could mean a big change for Jones and for America's paper currency.
The court found the Treasury Department failed to prove that changing the monetary system would be too difficult or expensive. The court said that neglecting to adapt to the needs of the blind was comparable to arguing that buildings do not need to be wheelchair accessible because handicapped people can either crawl or ask a stranger to carry them.
Because there is not always a sighted person with her, Jones owns a VoiceItAll machine, which can identify inserted bills. The machine is portable, about the size of a PDA, but costs nearly $270 and is not always accurate.
"You have to insert the bills right-side-up for it to work, which sometimes takes a few tries. If the machine can't identify the bill, it will say 'don't know,' Jones says. "I find it better and easier to just ask my husband."
Pam Boss, communication-skills instructor for the Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired, is also blind. She has a sighted person identify her bills, and she then folds her twenties together and organizes the others according to value. She keeps unidentified bills in her pocket until a sighted person can tell her what they are.
Though it doesn't happen often, Boss says she once had a cashier take her money and give her a $1 bill instead of a $10 bill as change.
"We shouldn't have to pay extra for equipment to identify our money when it can be done with markings or shapes," Boss says. "If they had each bill a slightly different size, a different texture, or if the corners were rounded or dog-eared, that would help a lot."
Boss says that Braille wouldn't be feasible because it would wear off as the bill circulates.
"I prefer to be as independent as possible," Boss says. "If [the government] spends the money to make the change, that will be one less thing that I have to depend on a sighted person for."