The Brazilian National Association of the Blind, Organização Nacional de Cegos do Brasil, with other organizations is suing for the removal of the new 200 Reais bank note, because it is not sufficiently accessible for the visually impaired. In short, the new 200 Reais bank note is exactly the same size as the 20 Reais note, while all previous notes are different in size.
The lawsuit is sufficiently covered by Arthur L. Friedberg in a recent CoinWorld article, thus I do not want to replicate this information. However, it is worth looking at the implications of this problem.
The decision of allowing an inaccessible solution is surprising, because Brazil was one of the first countries making currency accessible to totally blind people. Starting in 1994, with the introduction of the Real, most of the Brazilian bank notes had tactile marks. In 2010, when the second family of the Real was introduced, all of the notes had tactile marks, without exception. In addition, until the introduction of the 200 Reais, bank notes were all different length, in 7 millimeters increments. There are also two widths, lower denominations up to the 20 Rais note are 65 MM wide, and the higher denomination notes are 70 MM wide. The length and width difference increments are similar to what is used for the Euros.
The question is, does this difference, particularly lengthwise sufficient for blind people to tell these notes apart. The answer, however, is not obvious. If we assume that we have two kinds of notes, a 5 Reais (128 mm) and a 100 Reais (156 mm), the length difference is relatively easy to tell, even without any comparison. The 100 Reais is 28 millimeters longer, which is almost 25 percent longer than the 5. Once we have sufficient practice handling these notes, it maybe obvious immediately.
If we have several different notes, it is much harder to tell the difference. For example, 7 millimeters between the 10 and 20 is not all that much. If we have all the notes, we have enough comparison to put them in order, but if anything is missing, it is hard to tell if the two notes we are holding is a 5 and a 10, or a 10 and a 20.
On the other hand, we don’t need to have all the notes at hand to set the higher and lower denominations apart, as long as we have at least one of each, we can easily tell them apart just by using their width, which is only 5 millimeters, but it is large enough to differentiate between two notes. This way even if there is an error in recognition, we won’t accidentally pay with a large denomination note, in the worst case we will use a different small denomination one.
Just to put it into perspective, let’s look at an example of how much is 5 or 7 millimeters for identification purposes.
On this picture, you can see a US Dime and a Quarter, lined up at the edges. The quarter is approximately 6 millimeters larger in diameter than the Dime, so in between the two values we are examining. Especially if you are used to handling these coins, you would not once think about which is which, even though both are reeded. For the sake of simplicity, let’s not worry about the difference in thickness for now. The Quarter is approximately 35 percent larger in diameter than the Dime.
But let’s compare a 5 and a 10 Reais note. The 5 is 128 mm long, the 10 is 135 mm. Here, the difference is much smaller. 7 millimeters will only be a 5 percent difference, which is not all that much.
Now, the question is, if the size difference is not sufficient to immediately understand the value of a bank note, why is it so important? Mostly, because there is another method of telling currencies apart, by using an identification tool. I wrote about this in greater detail in my other article, how blind people recognize paper money. Briefly, such a tool has tactile markings, and blind people can hold a note against it and based on the marks, be able to tell exactly how long the bank note is. It is almost like a ruler for currencies. Thus, even if the bank notes are hard to tell apart by touch, the smallest difference in size helps people to use an identification tool. However, if we take this for granted, at the moment, blind people have no way to tell if a bank note is a 20 or a 200 Reais based on size.
Earlier I mentioned that Brazil has used tactile marks on its currency since 1994. Thus, theoretically those marks could be enough for recognition. The current 20 Reais note has two diagonal bars, and the 200 has three, which are also thicker than the ones found on the 20.
The tactile marks are on the bottom right corner.
But there is one problem with it, the tactile marks can only be felt when the notes are new. These paper bank notes have a problem on many currencies, the tactile marks tend to fade quickly. This issue is less apparent on polymer notes, which tend to preserve the tactile marks for years. When I spent three weeks in Brazil, using coins and currency wherever I could, I have not come across any bank notes in circulation on which I was able to feel the tactile marks. The ones I got which were good enough were directly from a bank.
There is no information if the tactile marks on the 200 Reais are created any differently than the marks on any other notes, but according to an article by CNN Brasil, Carolina de Assis Barros from the Brazilian Central Bank guarantees that the accessibility features of the note permit visually impaired people to identify the new 200 Reais note.
In conclusion, Brazil is facing the same difficulty which all those nations do which use paper currency, for example Hungary or Malawi. The tactile marks wear out much faster than the bank notes themselves do. Thus, much of the circulating currency is impossible to tell by touch unless there is also a size difference, which is not the case with the 200 Reais. Also, those people who relied on measuring bank note size as an identification method, will not be able to use their system any more.
Thus, in my view it is a reasonable request to alter the new 200 Reais note. The easiest approach would be to use a different length, for example 163 MM to maintain the existing system. Another approach would be to issue 200 Reais polymer notes, and ultimately replace the entire currency set. Of course such a decision would have much larger implications and it could take several years, but polymer notes would not only increase the level of accessibility, but also the security of the bank notes.