US paper currency, uniquely, does not differ by denomination in any way perceptible to the blind, and a district court judge says that’s not fair. If the decision survives appeal, we will have to find a way to distinguish bills, perhaps by embossing, perhaps by shape, perhaps by size, which is what almost every other country does (but see my last paragraph for another idea). The Treasury estimates that the last alternative would cost about $230 million. About a million people in the US are legally blind, perhaps another two million don’t see well enough to distinguish bills by sight, so this sounds like spending up to a couple of hundred dollars for each of them, once, to enable them to do what sighted people take for granted and do effortlessly and frequently. Spending and receiving money is an important part of being an autonomous, independent person.
A lot of rights assured to the disabled by law are really expensive per user, making one wonder if offering the cost of certain Americans with Disabilities Act provisions to the beneficiaries in cash wouldn’t be much preferred, but this one looks like a very easy call. In fact, one cost item in the Treasury’s estimate is $178m for “new printing presses”. I can understand new plates, but why can’t they just print fewer larger bills on the same sheet size they use now? Perhaps they would have to buy new cutting machinery, but not presses. So that part is even cheaper.
However, the cost of a change to varying sizes is much larger than the Treasury’s shopping trip. Perhaps ten million cash register drawers (about $150 each) and about six million vending machine acceptance units ($500 each, I would guess) will need to be replaced (not just adjusted); even wallets may be too small unless bills are progressively reduced in size from the C-note; are we ready for coupon-sized bills? The total cost of the change will be in the several thousands per blind person, not hundreds, with only a small part borne directly by government. In this light, the decision looks harder (still perhaps efficient) on pure utilitarian grounds, and may need to be analyzed in terms of rights that we deliberately choose not to price economically.
Here’s a cheap way out of this: how about just putting holes in the bills? We’d still need new printing plates so the holes are nicely located in the design; diecutting the holes will make the bills a little more expensive to manufacture; and even neat round holes will probably shorten the life of bills somewhat. But a row of zero (for the $100) up to six holes (in the $1), each about 3/8″ in diameter, would distinguish our seven circulating bills in a way a blind person could easily feel and allow us to do the right thing quite inexpensively. Another approach would seem to be to shorten, but not narrow, the bills progressively. I bet 3/8″ steps would work, which would make the single end just outside Washington’s picture frame, at 4″; still a practical size and still digestible to current vending machine slots. If we kill the $1 bill, all the better.