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$20 Bill To Get Feature for Blind

May 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The new $20 bill the Treasury Department is introducing will include an invisible feature officials hope will lead to the development of inexpensive, pocket-size, money-reading machines for the blind.

Such talking machines exist now, but they’re expensive, retailing for nearly $400 _ a lot of money to a blind person living on Supplemental Security Income.

The current generation of bill readers essentially are minicomputers. They identify bills by recognizing light and dark patterns. Each time the government redesigns a bill, as it began doing in 1996 with the $100 note, the machines must be reprogrammed to recognize both the old and new designs.

The challenge to researchers at the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing was to come up with a feature that could be read by a less expensive machine, wouldn’t cost the government a lot to add to currency, and wouldn’t be affected by future redesigns.

``Once someone had this detector, they wouldn’t have to constantly have them reprogrammed or replaced,″ said a department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He and other officials declined to reveal details of the feature, citing security concerns. Although it’s primarily aimed at bill readers for the blind, it also could be used by future automatic teller machines and vending machines.

A source familiar with the new $20s said a finger-width strip on the back of the bill will be printed with an ink that seems to disappear when exposed to infrared light. The strip will be in a different position on each denomination. Under natural light, it will be impossible to tell the bills are printed with two green inks.

``This adds virtually nothing to the cost of currency. It doesn’t add manufacturing steps. It didn’t cost money to develop,″ the Treasury official said.

Another advantage is the infrared-sensitive strip won’t interfere with vending and ATM machines relying on existing bill-identification techniques.

``We have a huge deployed base of equipment,″ said Kawika Daguio of the American Bankers Association. ``As long as they don’t do anything to invalidate that base of equipment, we don’t mind.″

Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan plan to unveil the design of the new $20 at a news conference on Wednesday. Like the new $100 and $50 before it, the $20 also will be updated with a variety of anti-counterfeiting features.

Among them: an enlarged, off-center portrait, a watermark in the shape of the portrait, an embedded polymer security thread that glows under ultraviolet light and a numeral printed in color-shifting ink.

Treasury officials plan to include the infrared strip in redesigns planned for bills with smaller denominations and in subsequent issues of the redesigned $50 and $100.

This is the first feature added to American money specifically to help the nation’s 200,000 blind people. Just as the redesigned $50 did, the new $20 will include an enlarged numeral surrounded by blank space. That’s to assist the 3.5 million Americans with impaired vision.

Earl Bryenton, president of Brytech Corp. of Ottawa, manufacturer of the leading handheld bill reader for the blind, said the infrared strip sounded promising.

``We’re looking at every way we possibly can to reduce the cost. ... If we can reduce the cost, we can get it to more people,″ he said.

But Oral Miller, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, said he doubted the cost could be reduced enough to provide machines to all who need them.

``If we’re talking about something that’s going to be truly useful to a lot of blind people, we’d be talking about something in the ballpark of $25,″ he said. ``The next thing is for the Treasury Department to develop a bill identifier and provide it to people who need it.″

But that’s not planned.

``We’ve created the capability in the note. ... We have to rely on the industry to take advantage of this and build the kind of detector people will want,″ the Treasury official said.

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