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Currency for the Blind
By Bank Note Reporter

As part of its effort "to create meaningful access to currency for the blind and visually impaired," the Bureau of Engraving and Printing announced the results of a study analyzing options to assist the blind and visually impaired in denominating U.S. currency have been posted on its Web site, www.moneyfactory.org.

While no timetable has been set for redesigned currency, the next redesign will incorporate changes to make U.S. currency more accessible to those who are blind and visually impaired, the BEP noted in a press release. The study was conducted by ARINC Engineering Services, LCC, on behalf of the BEP.

"This study is the next step in providing meaningful access to currency for the blind and visually impaired," said BEP Director Larry R. Felix. "The information gathered in this study will be used to help establish a direction for the Department of the Treasury in providing access to U.S. currency for all cash users."

As of 2008, the study estimated that there were 304,060 blind and 4,067,309 visually impaired Americans.

The study consisted of three phases:

l Phase one - conducted data analysis and gathered information regarding the demographics of the blind and visually impaired community and their characteristics, opinions, and needs related to using currency.

l Phase two - examined different technologies, features, and methods currently available, which could potentially improve access to U.S. currency.

l Phase three - provided an economic cost-benefit analysis of different accommodation options that address the needs of persons who are blind and/or otherwise visually impaired. It examined the cost to the public and private sectors and the effectiveness of these potential solutions.

In the next step of the process, the BEP, with officials from the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, will deliberate on the study findings and formulate initial recommendations that will be published in the Federal Register. In publishing this initial recommendation, the Treasury is seeking public comment and input on the changes that will be made to U.S. paper money.

The final recommendations will be presented to the Treasury secretary, who has authority to determine the design of U.S. currency.

In the key findings section of the report posted on the BEP's Web site, the study noted, under "Color, Contrast, and Design," that in an arm's length transaction:

"The VI [Visually Impaired] participants in the usability tests demonstrated that high foreground/background contrast for the primary numeral saves them time because they did not have to search both sides of the note for a numeral. VI people in the study who said they had reduced color sensitivity noted that high contrast numbers (e.g., Canadian dollar) were most helpful in aiding them.

"Focus group participants indicated that having medium - or large-size numbers in the upper corners, such as used on the United Kingdom (UK) pound, helped them successfully take a quick inventory of note denominations in a wallet.

"Extreme differences in the location of features on notes across denominations (e.g., Swedish kronor) allowed VI participants to identify features from further away (up to arm's length) than with currencies that have design items in the same location for all denominations."

Under the key findings for "Note Size Variations," the report notes:

"Feedback from focus groups and survey results indicated that both blind and VI participants believed that they would benefit from note size variation as a way to identify currency denominations. Fifty-two percent of all of the survey participants indicated that size differences would help them denominate currency. Blind participants in the focus groups were very receptive to the concept of size differences as a denomination method. For VI focus group participants, note size variation was considered to be a secondary denomination method to augment visible features.

"Results of the usability testing, however, where participants examined a single note at a time without other notes for comparison, indicated that the different sized notes were neither the fastest nor the most accurate method to denominate currency.

"Size changes along two dimensions (length and width) resulted in higher average accuracy results in the usability test than changes in only the length dimension. Results for the UK pound (two-dimensional size variation) averaged 60% accuracy, versus average of 48% for the Australian dollar (one-dimensional size variation).

"Proportional formats (having incremental increases in length and width) were moderately successful, but did not yield consistently good results. Irregular, or hybrid, size formats (e.g., the Swedish kronor) provided larger differences in length and width. These formats yielded better usability results as measured by accuracy and time to denominate.

"It is feasible that more practice and familiarity with a particular accommodation such as sizes could improve the usability of different sized notes."

As to "Tactile Features" the report notes that three primary tactile features were tested including a cluster pattern of raised dots, a system of notches cut into the top and bottom edges of the note, and a system of heavy intaglio raised print bars along the side of the note. It found that:

"Usability test results showed that the prototype edge notches were the most accurate means of identifying denomination for blind participants (average of 89% accuracy). The raised dot clusters, as implemented in Canadian currency, yielded positive results when the currency was essentially new (average of 84% accuracy) but the results for raised dots were significantly degraded on widely circulated notes (average of 49% accuracy). The prototype intaglio print raised bars were very helpful when new (average of 85%), but had similar results as the raised dots when simulated to be well circulated (average of 42%). Usability tests for the other tactile features yielded average accuracy measurements below 75%.

"Blind participants had a strong preference for the notches feature, though there was some concern about potential degradation of performance with widely circulated notes. Blind participants said that they used the raised intaglio print numerals on Canadian notes as backup for identification when the raised dots were too worn down to identify.

"Fifty-three percent of the survey participants said they thought a tactile feature would help them denominate currency. In the survey results, 43% of all respondents favored multiple accommodations (e.g., combination of a size format and a tactile feature) so that one feature could be used if the other was not discernable."

As to the key findings on "Currency Reader Device," between June 2008 and April 2009 the ARINC team tested three commerially available currency reader devices and three developmental prototypes, including devices that either required the user to slide the note into a slot or were a cell phone camera-based device. It found that:

"Survey participants were asked if they would take a reader with them when they went out in public. The results were not conclusive - 36% of all participants said they would, either occasionally or frequently, 23% said rarely, while 41% said never.

"The type of device annunciation (e.g., tone, voice, vibration) is an important consideration for blind and VI people. Most participants preferred voice annunciation when using a device at home, but were concerned about the reader revealing the value of the currency to nearby customers. Usability test participants commented that portability and speed of use are important factors in their willingness to use a reader device. One of the prototype devices received high marks for portability, several participants said they would carry something with similar size and speed with them and would use it while standing in line. Timing is critical in this scenario and most blind participants felt that the commercial devices were too slow for validating notes received as change in a transaction.

"Slide-in devices varied in ease of use. Proper use of these devices - orienting the note, sliding it in without folded corners, pressing a button and waiting for response - required varying amounts of dexterity. One of the larger devices was the easiest to use for virtually all participants. The smallest device was easy to use for most participants, and was praised for its portability, but was more challenging for those who had dexterity impairments.

"Participants described the need to orient notes for some devices as inconvenient because orienting the note added to the time it took to denominate the currency. Cell phone-based solutions were fairly easy for most participants to use, but took longer to identify the denomination. Participants considered the high cost of currently available devices to be a barrier to implementation."

As to the cost and benefit findings for "Note Size Variation," the ARINC team evaluated one-dimensional (where only the length of the varied by denomination) and two-dimensional (where both the length and the width varied by denomination) options. It noted that the government and industry costs (including initial non-recurring investment and annual recurring cost) would come to $9.5 billion for the first year of the one dimensional changes and more than $10.6 billion for the first year of two-dimensional changes. It noted that:

"Blind participants were able to achieve only moderate denomination accuracy (average ranged between 41% and 73%) in usability tests of currency and prototypes with size change accommodations. Distinct two-dimensional note size differences resulted in the highest average speed performance (7.2 seconds) and accuracy (73%) for blind usability test participants for all of the currencies and the prototype with 2-D size differences."

As to the cost and benefit findings for "Tactile Features," it noted that:

"The ARINC team evaluated three types of tactile features, mechanical (notches along the edges of the notes), raised (raised dots and printed bars), and embedded (foil patches).

"Mechanical. The identified Government and industry costs (including initial nonrecurring investment and annual recurring cost) for mechanical tactile features were moderately high - more than $6.6 billion. Blind participants were better at denominating currency using notches than size variation features. Most blind participants were able to denominate the system of notches accurately (average of 89%) and quickly (average of 14 seconds in initial trials, improving to 8.5 seconds with practice).

"Raised. The identified Government and industry costs (including initial nonrecurring investment and annual recurring cost) for raised tactile features were moderately high - more than $6.6 billion. Usability testing of raised dots and intaglio printed bars showed the benefits of raised tactile features on new notes. Blind participants were able to use the tactile feature to denominate new Canadian notes accurately (average of 84%). Intaglio printed bars yielded similar results on new notes (average of 85%). However, recognition accuracy for widely circulated notes was significantly reduced for both the raised dots and the intaglio printed bars.

"Embedded. The identified Government and industry costs (including initial nonrecurring investment and annual recurring cost) for embedded tactile features were relatively low more than $568 million. However, embedded tactile features are of limited benefit because they are typically difficult for blind people to locate. Enhancements to existing embedded features would be required to make embedded features a viable option for currency denomination."

Under cost and benefit findings for machine readable features, the study found that:

"The identified Government and industry costs (including initial nonrecurring investment and annual recurring cost) for machine-readable features were relatively low more than $75.8 million. There are no direct benefits to the blind and VI population from machine-readable features, unless devices are specifically developed to work with them, but new machine-readable features could enable manufacturers to develop currency reader device technologies that the blind and VI community would be more inclined to use."

As to cost and benefit findings for "Currency Reader Devices," the study found that:

"The ARINC team performed a cost analysis and a qualitative benefit analysis of six reader devices (three commercial and three prototype devices) to assess their efficacy as an accommodation for currency denomination by blind people. For the prototype devices, the manufacturers provided an estimated cost, but emphasized that the final price would change based on design changes or estimated market size.

"Slide-in note readers provided the greatest benefit among the tested devices. These devices were easiest to learn to use and were very accurate (98% to 99% average accuracy) in relatively short times (average results for individual devices ranged from 17.3 to 21.7 seconds). The estimated purchase price of these devices ranged from $100 to $330.

"The commercial cell phone reader device, although highly accurate (average 100%), provided moderate benefit to blind test participants; the denomination time (average of 34.2 seconds) was slower than they preferred. The estimated purchase price of the device was $1,600, but this device provides other applications in addition to currency identification.

"The prototype note corner reader was of marginal benefit to the blind test participants because the device accuracy (average 81%) was lower and the denomination speed (average of 36.5 seconds) was slower than the other devices tested. The estimated purchase price of the device was $100.

"The prototype cell phone device was too difficult for the blind test participants to use to be beneficial. The estimated price of $30 covers only the software; a cell phone would need to be purchased separately."

Earlier efforts by the U.S. government to improve the currency to help the public more readily identify denominations include design changes made in 1996 and in 2004 to feature larger, high-contrast numerals on the back of the notes and the inclusion of a machine-readable feature with the Series 1999 currency.

As to U.S. paper money, in particular, the study's conclusions were:

"l The VI participants could identify, on average, both the notes with no background color and the later generation notes with background color a minimum average of 94% of the time.
"l The light/dark silhouette (portrait) of each denomination and strong foreground/background color contrast of U.S. currency aids recognition for VI participants.
"l The large purple numeral on the redesigned $5 note was more helpful in the usability tests than the enlarged numerals on the $10, $20, and $50 notes.
"l With the exception of the $5 note, VI participants found that denominating notes with the new background color was slower on average than with the older designs without background color.
"l VI participants said that $50 notes and $20 notes are easy to confuse, because the 5 and 2 numerals look similar. This effect was noted with other currencies.
"l VI participants said that they would prefer that the primary large numerals for denominating notes be located in the upper left corner, instead of the lower right corner, to enable quicker denomination without removing the notes from a wallet.
"l VI participants took almost twice as long to identify the $100 note as they did to identify the other denominations."

In 2002, the American Council for the Blind filed suit against the Treasury for violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for failing to produce paper money that could be readily distinguished by blind and visually impaired people.

In December 2006 a lower court ruling found against the Treasury, and in May 2008, a federal appeals court ruling upheld the decision. Prior to that ruling the BEP contracted with ARINC Engineering Services, LCC to help find ways to make changes to U.S. paper money that would help blind and visually impaired people. Through subcontracts, ARINC also engaged help from the Battelle Memorial Institute, Naois LLC, and the University of Maine.


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