The U.S. dollar is the world’s most dominant reserve currency and the one most used in international transactions. Federal Reserve notes worth about $1.29 trillion are currently in circulation.  But to someone who is visually impaired, those bills are indistinguishable from one another because they are the same size, shape and weight, regardless of whether they are worth $1 or $100.

For years, people who are blind or whose sight is weakened by illness or age have used a folding system to store bills in their wallet according to their value. That system depends on a sighted person to tell them the denominations. Is there an alternative to depending on the kindness of strangers and the honesty of store clerks?

In 2008, a U.S. District Court ruled that U.S. currency designs discriminated against the visually impaired. The challenge for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which makes U.S. paper money, has been to find a way to make its bills distinguishable from each other without making today’s vending machines, automatic teller machines and other automatic currency machines obsolete.

Eight U.S. bills, four folded in different ways (State Dept.)
The visually impaired have developed a unique folding system to tell bills apart. (State Dept.)

Technological advances are helping the visually impaired and others with disabilities become more independent. There are now mobile phone apps that can take a picture of a bill and speak its value. Blind people also have used computer scanners and portable electronic money identifiers.

To benefit those with limited sight, BEP has been adding high-contrast numerals and larger portraits to bills over the past few years. In 2010, BEP announced that it plans to add raised tactile features to the currency, but such bills would not enter circulation before 2020.

In the meantime, the bureau has developed identification apps for iPhone and Android users and started distributing free iBill Talking Bank Note Identifiers. To use them, a user simply inserts a Federal Reserve note into the device and presses a button on the side for the reader to identify the denomination.