Over the weekend I was reading a review copy of Eric Karjaluoto's new book, The Design Method. There's a page where he mentions how Canadian banknotes are printed with a tactile feature in the corner so the visually impaired can easily tell what denomination they're holding.

Canadian banknoteImage credit: Bank of Canada

Designing currency is a project I'd love to do one day, so I was curious about what other countries do to help those with a visual impairment. Brazil, Thailand, Malawi, and Bahrain use embossing. China's banknotes are said to include Chinese Braille. Hong Kong followed China's lead. And all Chilean banknotes have tactile features in one corner.

The Bank of England has this to say about Braille on notes.

"...on the advice of The Royal Institute for the Blind the bank has not included this because very few blind people now read Braille; it is also regarded as a feature that may well wear out over the life of a banknote and therefore only serve to mislead if a tactile feature of this type became incomplete."

But it does incorporate a few things to help the visually impaired (different-sized notes, with each using different coloured shapes — similar in many ways to the design of euro banknotes).

What about the decline in numbers of those reading Braille?

The New York Times quotes from a 2008 report by the National Federation of the Blind:

"Whereas roughly half of all blind children learned Braille in the 1950s, today that number is as low as 1 in 10."

Smartphones are cited as just one reason, and where money is concerned there are two free apps — EyeNote (iPhone/iPad) and IDEAL Currency Identifier (Android) — that tell you the denomination when you wave a note in front of the camera (US dollar). The Bank of Japan and the Japanese Finance Ministry are planning (broken link removed, 2014) to launch a free app that'll recognise the yen. For $9.99 you can buy the LookTel Money Reader app. It recognises 21 currencies.

Then there's the Click Pocket Money Brailler that lets you stamp your notes with the relevant Braille number.

Click Pocket Money Brailler

But obviously you'd first need to know what note you're holding. There are the apps above, and Ottawa-based Brytech manufactures note readers for US and Canadian currencies. For those in the UK, the Royal National Institute of Blind People has advice and sells various products for identifying different banknotes.

In a 2009 ruling that ordered the US Treasury to come up with ways to help the blind recognise different denominations, US district judge James Robertson said that of 180 countries issuing paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and colour in all their denominations.

US dollar bill denominations

That prompted design studio Dowling Duncan (now merged with Mucho) to create its own design that would clearly be more helpful to the visually impaired.

US dollar Dowling DuncanDowling Duncan's dollar bill idea

Many people in the US currently use a variety of folds to determine what's in their wallets, with these ones recommended by the American Foundation for The Blind.

  • Leave $1 bills unfolded
  • Fold $5 bills lengthwise
  • Fold $10 bills by width
  • Fold $20 bills lengthwise and then by width

Two somewhat-related stories I found while reading: If you live in the United States or Canada, chances are you have cocaine in your wallet. The average banknote tested by Oxford University contains 26,000 bacteria. It's no coincidence that the study was commissioned by MasterCard. Still, interesting.