The new $20: A chance for accessible currency

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On a cool spring morning in 1821, behind the damp stone walls of a former prison from the French Revolution, a young boy blinded by an awl in his father’s harness shop would sit down at his desk in Paris at the Institut National des Aveugles (National Institute for the Blind) and begin to move his fingers across a series of raised dots that would revolutionize how people who were blind would communicate. As the young French boy began to work out the pattern of dots that would forever bear his name, a young girl born into the chains of slavery 3,700 miles away along the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, would take her first steps — steps that would someday lead her on a sojourn of liberation.

Even though the two children lived worlds apart across the Atlantic Ocean, their spirits are closely tied together two centuries later as the Biden administration considers the introduction of the first new paper currency redesign in well over a decade. The proposed redesign is for the $20 note, which is slated to bear the face of Harriet Tubman, a historic leader of the Underground Railroad who carried slaves to freedom for decades during the years that lead up to the Civil War. 

What many may not know is that while the new proposed paper currency will celebrate Harriet’s legacy of liberation, a federal court ruling in 2008 also requires the next paper currency issued by the U.S. treasury be made accessible for individuals who are blind and visually impaired. 

It was Louis Braille who showed the world that people who are blind did not need to be left in institutions, but they could become literate and productive members of society. His technique of reading with the tips of the fingers was as revolutionary for people who were blind as the Gutenberg Press was for people who were sighted. As Harriet Tubman liberated people with her feet, Louis Braille liberated people with the pads of their fingertips. 

You may not notice it. But today, tactile information conveyed through the fingers is all around us: on keyboards and keypads, elevators and bank machines, building entrances and even the plastic lids of fast-food soda cups. However, one place it has never been is on the face of U.S. paper currency, even though Congress required 48 years ago that all federal programs and services be made accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired. Since the 2008 court ruling, the U.S. Treasury has tried time and time again to stall efforts to make the next paper note accessible for Americans who are blind. Its reasons and rationale are weak at best, especially when every other developed country in the world has been able to create accessible paper currency. Presently, there are 81 countries that have figured this out. So, too, should the United States.

Dan Spoone is president of the American council of the Blind, a national consumer advocacy group fostering voice, choice and community for Americans who are blind and visually impaired.

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