A high school inventing club in Maryland has received an $8,000 grant from an MIT-administered program to create a device that promises to help people with blindness identify and sort paper currency.
The project raises an issue that people who have unimpaired vision are unlikely to consider— that paper bills in the United States are indistinguishable from each other solely by touch. A $100 feels no different from a $1. That stands in contrast to coins, which do feel different.
John Stansbury, a former software engineer turned math and computer science teacher at Poolesville High School in Maryland, is leading the effort; his team represents just one of the projects that has scored funding through the Lemelson-MIT program that gives high schools grant money towards inventions that solve “real-world problems.”
“What we wanted to do was build a wallet billfold device— about that size, we’re hoping— that you would take the bill, and feed it into it, like a printer feeding paper in, and it would read [the denomination],” Stansbury told FoxNews.com. The device would let the user know what denomination had been inserted, and also would keep each bill type sorted and accessible.
“There’s no real good solutions right now,” Stansbury added, saying that the goal of the device was to help boost independence for the blind.
Current and less-than-perfect solutions involve a person who is blind folding different denominations of money in unique ways, using a currency-identification smartphone app like MoneyReader that identifies each bill using the phone’s camera and then speaks its value out loud, and a device called iBill, which identifies one note at a time. (Stansbury said their device will work with more than one bill at the same time.)
But advocates for the blind expressed deep frustration that such solutions are even necessary. In fact, a 2008 court case brought by the American Council of the Blind (ACB) successfully sued the Secretary of the Treasury on the issue. The results of that victory were that the federal court ruled that the U.S. government was violating a law called the Rehabilitation Act with its inaccessible currency, and that they had to provide “meaningful access” for the blind as each denomination received a significant redesign, according to Jeffrey Lovitky, the attorney who represented the ACB.
That was over eight years ago.
“We’re very much frustrated today with the fact that there still is not a single denomination that’s accessible, eight years after the court order,” Eric Bridges, the executive director of the American Council of the Blind, told FoxNews.com.
“Still today, as with eight years ago, there is the ability to get it wrong,” he said. “Blind people today fold their bills, like a game of origami at times.”
Mark Richert, the director of public policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, shares Bridges’ frustration. “Really the solution needs to be built into the currency itself, because that’s the most efficient way of communicating the information,” he told FoxNews.com.
But the Department of Treasury maintains that they are already ensuring “meaningful access” for the blind.
“The U.S. government has implemented a variety of means for ensuring that the visually impaired community has meaningful access to the U.S. currency,” a Treasury spokesperson told FoxNews.com in an email. He listed free currency readers (like the iBill device), smartphone apps, and “the continuing addition of large, high-contrast numerals and different colors to each note that Congress permits the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to alter.”
The spokesperson also added that the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, said in June of 2015 that the new $10 would have “tactile elements” on it.
For now, advocates for the blind said that the current solutions fall short of real meaningful access that would make each bill identifiable without any kind of outside device.
Lovitky, the attorney from the 2008 case, said in an email to FoxNews.com that the fact that government thinks that currency readers are a form of “meaningful access” towards money for the blind “reflects the insensitivity of those agencies to the real world needs of the visually disabled.”
“I suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury spend an afternoon with eye blinds on going from store to store using a currency reader to figure how much money he has and how much money he has received as change,” Lovitky added. “I guarantee you that if he tried it, he would come away convinced of our position.”
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