Counting on Currency Accessibility

by Sara Bennett

Brampton, Ontario, Canada

According to an old adage, money doesn't grow on trees, but it looks as if currency that incorporates features that make it accessible to people who are blind and partially sighted is beginning to take root around the world. People experiencing vision loss are contributing greatly to this phenomenon. Only a few months ago the American Council of the Blind won its lawsuit against the Treasury Department claiming that it is discriminatory and in violation of the Rehabilitation Act not to provide paper money that can be identified by blind citizens.

Although the Treasury Department is appealing the decision, accessible currency is becoming an important issue not only for those of us who are blind and have difficulty independently identifying it, but also for government and money-issuing authorities worldwide. Many countries, by attempting to make paper currency attractive and easily distinguishable to the general public, have hit upon features that also aid identification by people who are visually impaired; others have specifically addressed the access needs of people who are blind. Of the approximately 180 nations that issue banknotes, some 170 differentiate between denominations by varying the color and 100 by varying the size, both features originally intended to benefit the sighted population. Twenty-four print large numerals on their notes for the benefit of people who have low vision, while 23 employ tactile markings on some or all denominations. Still others utilize geometric shapes or patterns, or even machine-readable features.

It is interesting to notice the wide variability among nations. Several differentiate between paper denominations by color alone, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba and Barbados; the vast majority by color and size, including Iran, Iraq, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Kenya and Ethiopia; Britain uses color, size and symbols to distinguish among four denominations of paper money, while the Czech Republic uses the same features to differentiate among 11 denominations; and South Africa uses all four methods (color, size, symbols and large numerals) for easier identification of just three denominations. Let's look more closely at two international currencies designed with accessibility features for people who are blind.

The 2001 Canadian Journey series of banknotes celebrating Canada's history, culture and achievements is designed to help blind and partially sighted citizens recognize banknote denominations by touch, sight or electronic signal. Located in the upper right corner on the front of notes, the tactile feature "consists of a series of symbols formed by groupings of six raised dots separated by a smooth surface. Each symbol is composed of two columns of three raised dots. These dots are embossed and back-coated to enhance their durability," according to the Bank of Canada's Web site. "These symbols are not braille: they are a system developed in consultation with blind and visually impaired Canadians after research indicated that not all potential users read braille." The Web site goes on to say, "The number and position of these symbols vary according to the denomination. The $5 note has one symbol, the $10 note has two symbols separated by a smooth surface, the new $20 note has three symbols separated by two smooth surfaces, and the $50 note has four symbols separated by three smooth surfaces. Like the $10 note, the new $100 banknote has two symbols, but the smooth surface or space between them is wider." Each side of a note contains a large, high-contrast numeral representing the value of the denomination, with the front showing a dark number on a pale background and the back a pale number on a dark background. While all notes are the same size, colors vary among denominations. Finally, the Bank of Canada provides a handheld, battery-operated banknote reader free of charge to blind and partially sighted people through CNIB (known formerly as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) that deciphers denomination-specific codes and informs the user of the value either by voice (English or French), tone or vibration.

The production of accessible paper money has been a team effort. Ginette Crew, Senior Analyst at the Bank of Canada, says "We worked with CNIB and the Canadian Council of the Blind throughout the development of accessibility features for the Canadian Journey series. We also consulted with blind and vision-impaired Canadians from across the country to get input on their preferences for ways to identify banknotes, and to test features under development. A tactility perception expert helped us develop the tactile feature and vision experts helped us with fonts, color contrast etc." When the two-dollar coin was under development by the Royal Canadian Mint several years ago, the Canadian Council of the Blind played an integral part in having the design changed from a multi-sided shape (which was too similar to the previously minted one-dollar coin) to a round shape, and from a relatively small size (much like a quarter) to a larger one. To facilitate differentiation, the two-dollar coin also has an alternating smooth/serrated edge. Another example of international money that incorporates accessibility features is the Euro, which entered circulation on January 1, 2002, and is the new currency of an estimated 315 million Europeans, including some 7 million blind and partially sighted citizens. The Euro has been adopted by, and replaces the national currencies of, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Slovenia, with other nations to follow in the future. Euro notes increase in size with their value (denominations are 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 Euros) and large, high-contrast and raised print is used. The eight denominations of coins (1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent, 1 and 2 Euro) vary in size, thickness, weight, shape (round or Spanish flower), color (red, yellow, outer part yellow/inner part white, and outer part white/inner part yellow), and edge (smooth, smooth with a groove, interrupted milled, and shaped edge with fine scallops). While Euro coins are issued by each member nation of the European Union adopting the Euro, notes are issued by the European Central Bank. From the beginning, the European Blind Union and associations for the blind in member states played an active role in the development of Euro notes and coins. On its Web site, the European Central Bank says, "The partnership with the European Blind Union has been a long and fruitful one. The useful input from the EBU followed the principle that "good design for visually impaired people is good design for everyone."

No worldwide standard for currency accessibility has yet emerged, but it is clear that all stakeholders are increasingly involved in the design, production and circulation of easily-identifiable denominations of notes and coins--from governments to banks to organizations of and for the blind. It is hoped that as human and disability rights issues come to the fore in public consciousness, all those who influence and are affected by accessibility will collaborate and reach a consensus, if not for one international standard for easily identifiable currency, then at least for the necessity of accessibility features for currency. Commenting on the Canadian Human Rights Act and the responsibility to ensure access to goods and services for all, including people who are blind and partially sighted, Crew, affirms, "The Bank of Canada is committed to including accessibility features in any future series of banknotes. ... We did not add accessibility features simply because of legislation. We did it because it was the right thing to do."


American Council of the Blind: 

Bank of Canada: 

Currency Features for Visually Impaired People: Appendix D--Features in Use Worldwide, National Academies Press, 1995: 

European blind Union 

European Central Bank: 

European Commission: 

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