Sometimes language is not enough

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The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has upheld the decision of a lower court in a suit by the American Council for the Blind, holding that US paper money violates the rights of blind people and ordering that it be modified so as to make it possible for blind people to distinguish one denomination from another. Another advocacy group, the National Federation of the Blind, sided with the Treasury Department, arguing that modifying paper money to accommodate the blind would make business take blind people less seriously and make it harder for blind people to find employment. Of the more than 180 countries that produce paper money, only the United States uses bills whose denomination can be determined only by reading. Euro banknotes, for example, are larger for larger denominations, are of different colors, so that people with limited vision can more easily tell them apart, and have the denomination printed in intaglio, which allows the denomination to be read with the fingers.

Update: There's some criticism of the decision by Hans Bader at with links to discussion of the original trial court decision. Much of the criticism is based on the allegedly enormous burden imposed on third parties, such as owners of vending machines and cash registers that would have to be remodeled. This is a real issue, but I don't know how accurate the estimates of the expense are. For example, the vending machines that accept banknotes in my experience almost always take only one dollar bills, so if the one dollar bill is left at its current size these machines will not require modification. The government's argument that redesigning banknotes would interfere with anti-counterfeiting measures seems to me to be unfounded: how does using bills of different sizes, colors, and edging interact with such anti-counterfeiting measures as the use of special paper or holograms?


  1. Karen said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    I don't understand the argument that modifying the money so blind people no longer have to ask someone what bill they have in their hands will "make business take blind people less seriously", nor how it will "make it harder for blind people to find employment". Did they explain that? It would seem to me to do exactly the opposite.

  2. Tania said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    I'm with you, Karen. I don't understand that argument at all.

  3. Lem said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    The article linked in the post fills in a little bit of information regarding the NFBs decision…

    "The NFB's president, Dr. Marc Maurer, issued a statement arguing that "blind people transact business with paper money every day" and don't need "feel-good gimmicks that misinform the public about our capabilities. "

    …but, to be honest, it does seem a little like arguing that legislation requiring buildings to fit wheelchair ramps is bad because some wheelchair users can use stairs and to claim otherwise is "misinformation" and a "gimmick".

    My vision is fine, but I find American notes very difficult to use compared to my native currency (British Pounds).

    Each to their own I suppose.

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    I think the word (this being, after all, Language Log) you're looking for is "lying".

    We quibble (entertainingly) about grammar, orthography, and translation, but can there be any greater misuse of language than outright deception?

  5. Bill Poser said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    I've added a link above to a presentation of the National Federation of the Blind's point of view. They seem to argue three things: first, that blind people already have no real problem handling US banknotes, second, that devices such as different sizes are not very effective in helping the blind, and third, that implementing accommodations for the blind makes blind people seem less competent. I'm not an expert on this, but I don't find their arguments very persuasive either.

    With regard to the first point, yes, there are various techniques that the blind can use, but they all depend on sighted people correctly and honestly identifying the bills they that blind people receive, often in circumstances where they have motivation to cheat. If I were blind, I think I would consider that a less than satisfactory situation.

    With regard to the second point, the fact that virtually every other country has implemented measures to allow blind people to distinguish denominations of banknotes is at least suggestive that these measures are helpful. Furthermore, the Euro banknotes were designed in consultation with European representatives of the blind, who presumably think that these measures are useful.

    The third point reflects a common split in opinion among people with various disabilities: is it better to minimize the effect of the disability in the hope of reducing unjustified discrimination against people with that disability or is it better to lobby for accomodation that makes the disability less of a problem? Roughly speaking, the first approach treats disabilities as a civil rights problem, the second as a medical problem. The "civil rights" approach is motivated in part by the fact that people with a disability are often incorrectly perceived as disabled in other ways as well: notice, for example, how dumb, whose original meaning is "mute, unable to speak", has come to have the meaning of "stupid", although in fact inability to speak is unrelated to intelligence. Similarly, deaf people are often thought to be stupid though here again there is no relationship between deafness and intelligence. So to some extent this approach is understandable.

    However, the "civil rights" approach is also motivated by a desire not to be thought of as "broken". This is understandable, but I think often objectively incorrect.

  6. felix culpa said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    It smacks of some shady backroom deal and seems of a piece with the political conviction that people ought to care for themselves rather than having hope of help from society.

    there’s a wonderfully revealing exchange on bloggingheads today in which Amanda Carpenter lashes out at Social Security for presuming to take her money away from her, saying it’s un-American.
    Jane Hamsher replies that a majority of Americans favor Social Security, which would have to mean a majority of Americans are un-American, further remarking that that is what America does; it gives succor to the weak and infirm.

    This advocacy, so to call it, and judicial decision, seem to side with Amanda.
    Rank hypocrisy would be my term of choice.

  7. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    Changing the money certainly isn't necessary, and the question itself will become less pertinent as time goes on and technology advances. Surely we can devise some small bit of inexpensive technology that can tell a blind person the denomination of a bill. According to, there is one called the Note Teller 2 already available (and is manufactured, ironically enough, in Canada). One created in the states was withdrawn pending final changes to the current bills. They aren't perfect, but they'll only get better, right?

    Would it be an unfair to expect the blind to have to pay for such a device? At $270, it costs about as much as a decent pair of glasses.

    I do think that the money should be changed, though. Simply because it is so UGLY. I mean, really. The new $5 bills look like someone spilled Kool-Aid all over them.

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

    I have difficulties distinguishing one dollar note from another of a different denomination and I'm not blind.

    I always thought defending something obviously disfunctional and stupid because it's tradition was a peculiarly British trait. I'm evidently wrong

  9. Karen said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    I've heard it said that we don't want to change our money because now we can fake being rich by wrapping a lot of ones in a twenty… But of course I don't know if that's true.

    Anyway, when I'm in Europe (or? and?) the UK, I like not having any doubts about which bill I'm pulling out of my wallet.

  10. parkrrrr said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    I seem to remember that at some point in the last few years, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was claiming that the large sans-serif numerals in the lower right corner of the reverse of the new bills contained some sort of encoding that could be easily read by a small handheld scanner of some sort.

    I don't think I've ever seen evidence of such a thing actually existing in the real world, and I see now that the BEP no longer appears to be making that claim, but presumably whatever features they claimed were there are still there.

    So is someone actually making the hardware they claimed existed then, or did it turn out to not be as easy as they thought?

  11. TootsNYC said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    All we have to do is make the $20 a bit bigger than the $10s and the $5s–not a lot, but a little–and then we can still wrap all the $1's in the $20s. OK, the edges will be not quite as firm, but a fast look will still fool people.

    I like to look at stuff like accommodations for the blind, those in wheelchairs, etc., as LOGISTICAL problems, not even medical. And certainly not civil rights.

    Does it make people live's easier?

    Also, I notice how much *I* enjoy the ramps in the sidewalks at the corner (strollers!) and in buildings; and I liked telling my toddler he couldn't walk on the "rumble strips" near the subway-platform edge.

    Everything we've ever done that has been to accommodate someone w/ a disability has ALSO be useful to ME.

  12. dr pepper said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    Hmm, i had been under the impression that US paper money already had small differences that people, blind or not, could learn to feel. Of course the new bills probably feel totally different. And while i can see embedding a chip in each bill that could be read by a device, say mounted in a ring, that could speak the denomination would be useful, a simple texture striping on each corner would work just as well.

  13. Leslie said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

    I really don't understand all of the resistance to this! I LOVED living in Europe and being able to glance in my wallet and estimate how much money I had without close inspection! Different colors and different sizes just makes SENSE. Having blind people carry around a scanner does not.

    American coins aren't exactly the most user-friendly, since they don't even have numerals on them, but at least they are different sizes (despite the fact that the sizes don't correspond with the denominations). Could you imagine if they were all silver and the size and shape of a nickel, and we had to READ every single one to work out what they are?

    We should change the money. And, in the process, dump the $1 bill and the penny.

  14. K. said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

    "I've heard it said that we don't want to change our money because now we can fake being rich by wrapping a lot of ones in a twenty"

    My concern would be precisely the opposite. At present, I can easily conceal a large bill amongst smaller denominations, hopefully reducing my appeal as a target of theft. I'm all for the idea of distinguishable currency, but I'd personally prefer not to make the highest denominations the physically largest and most flashy.

  15. outeast said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 4:02 am

    It's plausible that modifying ATMs etc to handle different-sized notes would be very costly; introducing tactile differences between the notes should not be, however – such an innovation could be phased in with the kinds of routine changes made to deter forgers and could actually increase security in that respect at the same time.

  16. Kate said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    I certainly hope that the US gets its very own colorful Monopoly money. Ever since I moved to Europe I have the damndest time with American money.

    The idea of making the highest denominations the smallest, easiest to conceal bills is kind of fascinating, though it does seem like thieves would pick up on that too.

    And the whole idea that we'll lose respect for blind people because we think they can't cope with the money we have now… the hell?!

    Just tell the advocacy groups it will be easier for young children and tourists to learn how to spend their dollars.

  17. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 6:38 am

    "Money doesn't talk. It swears."

    That line from the Bob Dylan song, "It's Alright, Ma. (I'm Only Bleeding)" is not quite on topic, but it swore it belongs here.

  18. Alexander McLeay said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    It's plausible that modifying ATMs etc to handle different-sized notes would be very costly;

    I very much doubt it. Most countries have ATMs that deal with different-sized notes and I know the brandname of ATMs I seem most often around me here in Australia — Diebold — is an American name. And our notes aren't even paper! Probably most ATMs will support it already.

  19. Jane said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    Most ATMs only give out twenties, so they don't have to be modified to handle a range of sizes.

  20. Rick S said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    …the vending machines that accept banknotes in my experience almost always take only one dollar bills…

    Are you forgetting the self-checkout machines that seem to be appearing everywhere these days? They generally accept anything from $1 to $20 bills (four denominations). Soft drink machines are only a small problem, both because they accept only one denomination and because the potential loss to counterfeit bills is small–nobody bothers counterfeiting $1 bills. But four denominations and greater potential losses mean self-checkout machines have to do more rigorous identification and validation. Higher technology means higher redesign and replacement costs.

    Even for $1-bill-only machines, if the solution involved something like intaglio or edge tactility, this could increase jamming and reduce stacking capacity.

    I'm not arguing against helping out the blind, I'm just saying that the third-party burden could well be quite large. Maybe the government should even subsidize it.

    The NFB's position is…well…it reminds me of Newspeak somehow. You'd think they'd change their name to National Federation for the Differently Sighted.

  21. David Starner said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    But ATMs, etc. do tend to deal with a wide variety of cash. We have a bunch of trouble at work with the self-check registers, especially with coins, and I would expect that making the paper bills different sizes should make it more like that the material would jam. The fact that Australian bills aren't paper may make it easier for Australian machines, if it means that the bills are less likely to rip.

    I don't see the objection to tactile indications. Braille or raised numbers should be simple enough to add without causing huge problems. Note that new American money is color-coded; 10s are orange and 5s are purple, for example.

    I do wonder why we should have a court telling us what to do here. Social Security is a good example, one that was created by Congress; our officials elected to make law should be the ones making the cost-benefit analysis.

  22. Don Sample said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    You don't have to make different bills different sizes. Canadian money is all the same size, but our bills include features that make it possible to determine the denomination by feel, such as embossing the numbers on them.

  23. Darryl Shpak said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

    As Don mentions, Canadian notes are all the same size, but they're different colours (which helps everyone), and in addition to raised ink that you can feel, the bills also have Braille in one corner (hard to notice, but if you know it's there, you can find it). When the new designs came in, I assume changes were necessary to machines that accepted bills, but those seem few and far between. The only ones I can remember seeing in the last couple years are change machines at places like coin-operated car washes.

    This may be because the US is a little more cash-based than Canada is: when I'm in the US, I'm often surprised at how few places accept credit or debit cards, which are pretty much all I use in Canada. (Conversely, I believe that payment by personal cheque is much more common in the US than it is in Canada.)

  24. anona said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    I do wonder why we should have a court telling us what to do here. Social Security is a good example, one that was created by Congress; our officials elected to make law should be the ones making the cost-benefit analysis.

    Congress already made the relevant law: the Americans with Disabilities Act. This decision is simply forcing the BEP to follow it.

    Also, the reason that higher denominations are always larger in foreign currency is so you can't cut down a $1 bill, bleach it, and print $100 on it. If you want to conceal your large bills, try folding them.

  25. Arthur Crown said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    What are Australian notes made of?

  26. marie-lucie said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

    I think that the reason Canadians can use debit cards much more readily than Americans might be that there are fewer banks in Canada, all with branches throughout the country, and perhaps they are more regulated than in the US.

    Size of bills: in the Euro zone some countries used to have large differences between the various bills, some of the larger denominations being huge, but nowadays all the bills are much smaller (smaller than US and Canadian $ bills) and while they are of different sizes, the difference between them is much less.

    Australian money not made of paper? I have been in Australia and never realized it.

  27. Alexander McLeay said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    Australian notes are made of polymer/plastic and have been since the early-mid 1990s. See for more information.

  28. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    David, the new $10s aren't orange. They're urine-colored. Every time I see the I just have this image of some dog having peed on my wallet.

    The treasury department could save a ton of money by getting rid of $1 bills. They can then use that money to help businesses transition to the multiple size ATMs and other type machines.

    Marie-lucie: Does that mean Canadians next use paper money? I can't think of a single place in my small (50k) hometown that doesn't take credit cards. Now, here in Europe on the other hand, half the places for food don't take them. Also, American money is not actually paper money, rather fabric, it's about 3/4s cotton and 1/4 linen.

  29. john riemann soong said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

    "nobody bothers counterfeiting $1 bills."

    Well, if the authorities aren't going to inspect $1bills, that denomination suddenly would seem like the "safest" thing to counterfeit.

  30. dr pepper said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    ATMs used by B of A can already handle different sizes of checks. They now take checks directly, scan them, read them and display them for confirmation. And they out images of hte checks on the deposit receipts. It would be easy to adapt that to process different sized bills.

  31. Julia said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

    Australian dollar bills are made of a plastic polymer.
    Apparently, they're even recyclable, and Australia prints plastic bills for countries such as Mexico, Bangladesh, etc.:

    (and, if you've got five minutes to spare, you can see here how they're produced:

  32. nominalize said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    Nobody counterfeits $1 bills because it costs more than a dollar to fake one.

    Colored notes are also harder to counterfeit because you have to match the colors in a precise way. (A storekeeper might not be able to tell, but the Treasury department would, say, for a trial.)

    Coins are of different sizes and weights because the metals that go into them are of different values. That said, even American quarters have ridges around the edges for the blind, and Euro coins are more detailed.

    Differently colored notes are very helpful… Whenever I hold up a line by digging for a $5 in my wallet, I wish the bills were colored differently so I could find one faster.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    Canadians use paper money, credit and debit cards.

    American money not made of paper? the best paper (strong and shiny) is made from rags – textile fibers, not wood pulp. That does not make it "fabric".

  34. Arthur Crown said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    To Alexander McLeay & Julia:

    Thanks for the Australian polymer-note links, I love the youtube video showing them being made. It seems like a great idea.

  35. David Marjanović said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    I think that the reason Canadians can use debit cards much more readily than Americans might be that there are fewer banks in Canada, all with branches throughout the country, and perhaps they are more regulated than in the US.

    Would surprise me. Debit cards are accepted literally everywhere in France, but are still rather rare in Austria, and I can't think of a difference other than tradition. Conversely, cheques are still used in France, while in Austria they are universally regarded as ancient history — I was very surprised to learn that in France and the USA they still exist. Bank transfer is used in Austria. But in France people even pay by cheque in the supermarkets! (Takes forever.)

  36. Mike said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 7:00 am

    I lived for 5 years in the US and could never work out how much money I had in my wallet except by counting it out. The US banknotes also have a similar feel to a lot of other paper, so it's harder to distinguish in the pocket.

    Having grown up with Australian banknotes which were multi-coloured and multi-sized long before the polymer notes arrived, I also appreciate this diversity in other countries.

    I'm not going to wait for US ATMs to adapt (or get rid of pennies and dollar notes) especially when the US can't even get its voting machines figured out. In the meantime I just have to bite my lip when someone whips out a checkbook at the register to pay for take-out coffee.

    I noted last year that some of the French highway toll systems won't accept credit cards from banks outside the EU. I managed to drive from Calais to Besancon without needing any physical currency and then at the last exit found that none of my US or Australian cards was acceptable.

  37. Damien Hall said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    I think it's not just non-European cards that aren't accepted in some machines in France, but non-French ones. I am British and frequently go to the Cotentin peninsula (the one with Cherbourg at the tip), but at the moment I live in the USA, so I have a British ATM / debit card, an American ATM / debit card and (separate) credit cards from both countries. It just so happens that the vast majority of gas stations in the Cherbourg area are self-service only, so you have to put your card in the pump in order to get any gas; but this is always a major problem for our family, because British or American debit cards aren't accepted in any of those kinds of pumps. (Even though both types work universally elsewhere in France, both in bank ATMs and to pay in stores.) This leaves us with the option of using our credit cards (which we would rather not do, because of having to remember to pay them back before the interest kicks in, whereas with a debit card it just comes out of your account and that's that). But, as we rarely use credit cards, we can never remember the PINs for them! More than once this state of affairs has left us hoping that we could get where we were going in rural France on the fumes left in the tank. So we've learnt to plan trips in that direction so that we remember to stop at the one service station on the route where you can go in and use a debit card to pay a person for your gas.

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