U.S. Currency: Reader Program Should Be Evaluated While Other Accessibility Features for Visually Impaired Persons Are Developed

GAO-14-823 Published: Sep 26, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2014.
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What GAO Found

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) has progressed in making currency accessible through a three-pronged approach it adopted and is considering the costs of its approach as it continues its efforts. BEP has:

Added large, high-contrast numerals to notes, and it plans to continue to refine these numerals.

Started to distribute free currency-reader devices that can scan a note and audibly announce its value. However, BEP's plans to evaluate the effectiveness of this new program are incomplete, and without a complete evaluation, BEP cannot determine the program's effectiveness.

Made limited progress in developing a raised tactile feature on notes, which would provide the ability to determine the note's value by touch. While BEP has narrowed the options of what a tactile feature would look like on a note and how it would be applied, BEP officials stated that challenges developing the feature will delay selecting an option to test until March 2015—over a year behind schedule.

Supplementing these efforts, BEP developed a smartphone app that identifies notes. High-contrast numerals add little additional cost, and BEP estimates it will spend about $35 million on currency readers over 3 years. Cost estimates to produce a tactile feature are preliminary and range widely.

GAO identified three factors that may affect BEP's efforts to complete its three-pronged approach. First, the inclusion of a tactile feature will require a redesign of currency, but it is not known when this will occur. Because BEP makes changes to currency to stay ahead of counterfeit threats, redesign occurs as needed and not at regular intervals. Second, BEP has faced difficulties developing a raised tactile feature, falling behind its internal schedule. Third, senior BEP and Federal Reserve officials told us that they have discussed the Federal Reserve's concerns about the potential cost impact of a tactile feature and whether technological changes since the 2008 court order could provide alternative options to BEP's current approach. BEP officials stated that they have not yet determined how these concerns might be addressed. Advocates for organizations representing visually impaired persons consider a tactile feature to be important and are concerned about the length of time it is taking BEP to provide access to currency.

Large, High-Contrast Numeral and Currency Reader Device

Large, High-Contrast Numeral and Currency Reader Device

Why GAO Did This Study

All blind and many persons with low vision are unable to distinguish currency denominations without assistance. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that Treasury failed to provide meaningful access to U.S. currency to visually impaired persons, and in 2008, ordered Treasury to take steps to do so. The court did not define meaningful access, leaving it to Treasury to choose a course of action. Within Treasury, BEP designs and manufactures currency. GAO was asked to review the progress BEP has made toward meeting the district court's order. In addition, the Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, mandated GAO to report on strategies for minimizing the cost of developing currency with accessibility features.

This report examines (1) the status of BEP's efforts to provide currency that is accessible for visually impaired persons and how BEP is considering costs as part of these efforts and (2) factors that may affect BEP's efforts. To answer these questions GAO reviewed court and BEP documents, and interviewed officials from BEP, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Secret Service as well as representatives from advocacy organizations for visually impaired persons and trade associations for cash-handling companies.

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GAO recommends BEP evaluate its currency reader program while it develops a tactile feature in the next redesign of currency. BEP did not take a position on our recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Bureau of Engraving and Printing To determine the extent to which the currency reader program provides assistance to visually impaired persons while a tactile feature is being developed and integrated into the next currency redesign, the Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing should evaluate the currency reader program to include facets such as how well the program provides visually impaired persons with a means to independently denominate currency.
Closed – Implemented
In 2014, GAO reported that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) had made some progress implementing its three-pronged approach to making U.S. currency accessible to visually impaired persons. This three-pronged approach included notes with large, high-contrast numerals; a currency reader program--which provides a device that can scan a note and audibly announce its value; and a raised tactile feature on notes. BEP launched the initial phase of its currency reader program by distributing free reader devices to eligible persons at the annual conferences of three national organizations for visually impaired persons. According to the BEP Director, the currency reader program was a key part of BEP's three-pronged approach and was designed as the one method that can provide virtually all visually impaired persons with a means to independently denominate notes. BEP projected it would spend about $35 million on the currency reader program over the next 3 years. Although BEP planned to evaluate the program's effectiveness, its evaluation plan was incomplete. According to BEP officials, BEP had been focused on implementing the program instead of evaluating it. GAO's prior work on federal agencies that have used program evaluation for decision making has shown that program evaluation can allow agencies to understand whether a program is addressing the problem it is intended to and assess the value or effectiveness of the program. While BEP plans to continue to refine notes with large, high-contrast numerals, the agency had not set a date for introducing a tactile feature on U.S. currency. Consequently, the need for currency readers will likely continue for many years because BEP estimated the first note with a tactile feature will not likely be issued before 2020. Given this time frame, it is important for the currency reader program to be an effective interim step to provide access to currency for visually impaired persons. Therefore, GAO recommended that BEP evaluate its currency reader program, including how well the program provides visually impaired persons with a means to independently denominate currency. In response, BEP conducted a "Voice of the Customer" survey in July 2015. This survey was completed by approximately 300 individuals who had received a currency reader and asked survey respondents about the convenience, ease and effectiveness of their currency reader. As a result, BEP is in a better position to determine whether the program is providing visually impaired persons with a means to independently denominate currency, assess the effectiveness of the program, make improvements to the design and, if needed, adjust the deployment of the program that will be needed for many years.

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