I wrote an article which was posted in the June 5th, 2016 issue of The Pavlovic Today in which I discussed a potential idea for modernizing some of the design features which appear on U.S. currency.  

In the article that I wrote in June of 2016, I’d discussed the possibility of the U.S. Mint and the Bureau Of Engraving And Printing allowing for portraits which depict living persons to be permitted to appear on American bills and coins. I also wrote an article which appeared in our December 31st, 2018 issue in which I’d discussed the proposed new $20 bills which will feature a portrait of Harriet Tubman.

In this article, I will now discuss a proposed design feature which I believe should be included not only in U.S. currency, but in all paper currencies throughout the entire world.

Embossing is based on an impressively simple technology.  If you tour any archaeology museum anywhere in the world, you will see that people had been using seals which were made from stone and copper to emboss clay tablets during the late bronze age, and that governments and religious organizations throughout the world have been using seals which were made from various metals to emboss paper documents since the Middle Ages. 

Basic common sense indicates that embossing paper currency with a seal which would be machine operated would be a very simple feature to add to bills.  Embossing is a much simpler feature than many of the design features which are commonly included in paper currencies throughout the world for security purposes such as microprinting, security threads, watermarks, holograms and fluorescence, and furthermore embossing will not interfere with these anti-counterfeiting measures.

The people who design coins in mints throughout the world realized centuries ago that it is easy to mint coins in different sizes according to denomination, and that it is also relatively simple to manufacture coins which are slightly different shapes according to denominations.  For example, in many countries some coins are perfectly circular while other coins which initially appear to be circular in shape from a cursory glance, closer inspection will reveal that some coins are complex multifaceted polygons which include straight edges that visually impaired persons can be feel with their fingers. 

The people who design coins at mints in some countries also opt to include vertical grooves or “reeding” along the outer edges of coins.  This feature was added to coins in many countries specifically so that blind people can easily distinguish the denominations of coins by feeling around the edges of them. 

In the U.S., the U.S. Mint began adding grooves to the edges of some coins beginning in the 1790’s when the mint was first established, and today reeding is included along the edges of dimes, quarters and half dollar coins specifically to make it easy for blind people to distinguish dimes quarters and half dollars from pennies, nickels and dollar coins.  (Since the late 1970’s the use of half dollar coins has been limited mostly to the numismatics trade, but the older 50¢ coins are still legal tender.)  

 Features which enable blind persons to distinguish between denominations of coins have been commonplace throughout the world for at least 200 years now, and while the national mints in some countries do include embossing features on paper currency, the mints in a number of countries throughout the world have been much slower to add comparable features to paper currency.  Sadly, the absence of embossing features on paper currencies in many countries also dates as far back as the nineteenth century, which is when paper currency first became commonplace in many countries.

In most countries in which paper currency does not include embossing, people who are blind or severely visually impaired need to either have personal assistants accompanying them when they go shopping or they rely on the honesty of the cashiers and the other people who are on the checkout lines with them when they go shopping and when they conduct all of their cash transactions.    

How Can Embossing Features On Paper Currencies Work?

 There are a number of various ways that embossing features can be added to paper currencies.  The graphic designers who work at mints throughout the world can opt to emboss the numbers which indicate the denominations.  They can opt to emboss the value of each bill with a word which indicates the denominations in the national languages of the country or countries which use those currencies, or they could opt to emboss the value of each bill in braille.  

 It would seem to me that the most practical of these aforementioned features to implement would be to emboss the actual numbers because while languages as well as braille differ between countries, the entire world has been using Arabic numerals since the 18th century.  People who are blind or severely visually impaired do sometimes travel to different countries, and this feature would be easily universally understood by blind people throughout the world.

 The graphic designers who work at mints throughout the world can also opt to use different size bills for each denomination. 

What Have Various Countries Done To Enable Blind Persons To Distinguish Between Denominations Of Currencies?

 As I researched this article I could not find a database from the 2020’s which lists all of the national currencies of the world and which national mints now include design features which are intended to make it easy for blind people to distinguish between the various denominations.  The most recent chart that I was able to find which compares the design features of the various currencies of the world with specific reference to features which are intended to make it easy for blind persons to distinguish denominations was a chart which was originally written back in 1995 which the National Academies Press posts on the NAP website

 The chart that I’m referencing predates the introduction of the Euro, so the information that it lists about the currencies from the countries which now use the Euro is obsolete.  However, with the exception of the Eurozone countries, although this chart that I’m referencing is now 26 years old, unfortunately it is still largely accurate.  While many of the national mints throughout the world have redesigned their paper currencies in recent years because they’ve needed to add new features to deter counterfeiting as the resolution in the prints that are produced by laser printers improves every year, only a relatively small handful of the governments of the world have added features to their paper currencies which make it easy for blind people to distinguish between denominations since the National Academies Press posted the chart that I’m referencing back in 1995.

In North America, the governments of both Mexico and Canada have successfully addressed this issue.  The Royal Canadian Mint has been including embossed dots which indicate the denominations on the various denominations of Canadian dollar bills since 2001.  (Although the dots which are embossed onto Canadian Dollar bills look similar to braille, those dots are not actually braille; the dots which are embossed onto Canadian currency is a code which is unique to Canadian currency.)  The Mexican Mint introduced embossing on Mexica peso bills in 2005. 

 As I researched this article, the only country that I could find in Central America which is presently attempting to address this issue is Costa Rica.  The Central Bank Of Costa Rica has proposed adding embossing features onto the Costa Rica colón notes, however this is a relatively recent proposal and they have yet to implement this feature.

In Europe, in the 19 countries in Europe which use the Euro as their currency, people who cannot see can easily distinguish between the different denominations of Euro notes because the mints of the European Central Bank print the Euro notes in different sizes according to the denomination of each note.  The Euro notes also have intaglio printing on them, which is a design feature similar to embossing which enables people to identify the different denominations with their fingertips.

 Outside of the Eurozone, the Swiss National Bank prints Swiss Franc notes in different sizes which denote the varying denominations, in Sweden, the Riksbank prints the Krona notes in different sizes, and in the U.K., the Bank Of Englandprints Pound Sterling notes in different sizes. 

The only countries in Asia that I found in which the mints have designed their paper currencies so that blind people can easily distinguish between denominations are India, Japan and Hong Kong.  The Indian Government Mint prints rupee notes in different sizes according to denominations, and they also use intaglio printing on the rupee notes.  In Japan the National Printing Bureau uses intaglio printing on Yen notesThe Hong Kong Monetary Authority prints Hong Kong Dollar bills in different sizes according to denomination and they also use embossed printing on Hong Kong dollar bills.

   The only currency in Australasia that I could find in which paper currency includes design features which are intended to assist blind people and people who have visual impairments is the Australian dollar.  The Reserve Bank Of Australiaprints Australian dollar bills in different sizes, and they have now added embossed printing on the newest series of Australian dollar bills.  The Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Nauru and Tuvalu also use Australian dollars as their national currencies.

 The chart that the National Academies Of Science, Engineering And Medicine’s Press had compiled that I’m referencing only includes national currencies, this chart does not include currencies from regional monetary unions.  The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, which is responsible for designing and printing East Caribbean dollars includes a series of dots onto the corners all East Caribbean dollar bills, the dots enable blind people to distinguish between the denominations.  

 The Central Bank of West African States is responsible for designing and printing West African CFA FrancsThe Central Bank of West African States prints West African CFA Franc bills in different sizes according to the denominations.

 I’ve not traveled to any of the six countries which use the Central African CFA Franc as their national currency, and as I researched this article I was unable to find any information about whether the Bank of Central African States has added any design features to the Central African CFA Franc bills which are intended to enable blind people to distinguish between the denominations of this currency.

What Is The U.S. Federal Government Doing To Address This Issue?

 In the U.S., there has been some progress made in recent years with regard to adding features to dollar bills which would make it easier for blind people to distinguish between denominations, but we’re still lagging behind a number of other countries with regard to this specific design feature. 

 The Bureau Of Engraving And Printing has launched a program called the Meaningful Access Program, which is aimed at addressing the issues relating to blind and visually impaired persons being able to distinguish between the denominations of dollar bills.  The Bureau Of Engraving And Printing issues devices called iBill currency identifiers to people who are blind or severely visually impaired, these devices enable people to scan dollar bills and the iBill devices indicate the value of the currencies using sounds.  There are also apps which are designed for this purpose, these apps enable people to scan dollar bills with their phones, and then the value of the bills is indicated via sounds.  However, the apps are dependent upon peoples’ phone working, and phones do sometimes malfunction. 

 As of March of 2022, the Bureau Of Engraving And Printing has only announced plans to add an embossing feature onto our $10 bills, the Mint and The Bureau Of Engraving And Printing have yet to announce any proposed changes which would add embossing onto any of our other denominations.

 I’m hoping to see embossing features included on all of the paper currencies which are in use throughout the world.  With specific regard to the U.S. dollars, I would like to point out that the U.S. dollar is not only the currency of the U.S., there are at least 20 other countries throughout the world which use American dollars as one of their currencies because they lack stable national currencies and they don’t participate in regional currency agreements, so the addition of embossing features on U.S. paper currency would also be beneficial to people who are blind or severely visually impaired in all of the countries throughout the world in which U.S. dollars are used as currency.   The Bureau of Engraving and Printing only issues iBill currency identification scanners to U.S. citizens.  Blind people and people who are visually impaired who live, work or travel through any of the other countries which use U.S. dollars as their currency have to rely on currency identification apps. 

 The design features on paper currency is not specifically mentioned in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (written in 2006, entered into effect as of 2008), nor is currency mentioned in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, so the absence of the embossing features that I’ve been discussing in this article on dollar bills does not violate either international law nor domestic U.S. laws.  However, common sense would indicate that adding these features to our dollars is long overdue.

Paper Currencies, Blindness, Visual Impairments And New Design Features 

An increasing number of transactions throughout the world are now being accomplished via credit cards, direct funds transfers, direct deposits and cryptocurrencies, and the covid pandemic has forced billions of people throughout the world to stay indoors, thus accelerating this trend.  

People who are blind or severely visually impaired will have a relatively easy time conducting transactions via their phones and their computers because phones and computers enable them to conduct their transactions using interactive voice response devices.  

However, there are still billions of transactions and exchanges which are conducted with cash throughout the world every day, and people who are blind or severely visually impaired do still need to conduct transactions using cash throughout the world every day.

Anybody who has ever had neighbors, classmates, roommates, coworkers, friends or family members who are either blind or severely visually impaired or who has worked or volunteered to assist people who are blind or visually impaired has seen how difficult and complicated their day-to-day activities are.  

While biologists throughout the world in recent years have been making progress in research which may cure some forms of blindness, the world is still many decades, if not centuries away from seeing an end to all forms of blindness.  We cannot solve all of the difficulties which affect people who are blind or severely visually impaired in the 21st century, but it does seem that it will be relatively simple for mints throughout the world to opt to include embossing features on paper currency, which will make cash transactions far easier for people who are afflicted with visual impairments.

 I would encourage the various agencies which are responsible for designing paper currencies throughout the world to discuss proposing adding design features to their currencies which would enable blind people and people who have severe visual impairments to distinguish between denominations as soon as possible. 

 It does usually take at least 2 years to redesign currencies and for mints and printing bureaus to approve changes.  It takes at least an additional year for them to begin printing a new series of bills.  And once new bills are introduced into circulation, the older bills which lack these new design features will still remain in circulation for several years.  

Paper currencies are designed to be durable, bills often remain in circulation for 10 years, and in some countries, older bills remain in circulation for much longer.  It won’t be until all of the older bills which lack new design features are withdrawn from circulation that all of the bills which have the new design features on them will be the only bills which are in circulation.

 If you feel that this is an issue which is important to you, then send emails or make telephone calls to politicians and to candidates who are running for various offices in your countries.  Politicians have the authority to propose legislation which would require mints throughout the world to include new design features on currencies.  This is true for both national currencies as well as in countries which use currencies from regional monetary unions.

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Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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