The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing is working to redesign banknotes so blind and visually impaired consumers more easily may identify their denominations. Though details are sketchy, the changes will affect segments of the ATM industry differently, observers say.

The bureau announced its intentions after the U.S. Department of the Treasury decided not to appeal a 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. In that case, the appeals court upheld a 2006 lower court decision that the federal government violated Section 504 of U.S. Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide meaningful access to U.S. banknotes for the blind and visually impaired. Section 504 prohibits discrimination in government programs for the disabled.

The American Council of the Blind, an Arlington, Va.-based organization representing the blind and visually impaired, had filed the case against the Treasury Department. Mitch Pomerantz, council president, says the Treasury Department has not indicated the specific changes that will affect U.S. currency. “We don’t know if Treasury will use Braille or if it will change the size and color of banknotes,” Pomerantz says.

To address the issue, the bureau in July received a commissioned study to address its options, and it now plans to solicit public comments on the findings, Claudia W. Dickens, bureau spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail message. Once the 90-day comment period ends, the bureau will submit formal recommendations to the U.S. Treasury Secretary. The timetable has not yet been announced.

The ATM industry expects the bureau’s decision to have a financial impact on the nation’s 225,000 bank-owned ATMs and the 240,000 machines owned by ISOs. The size of the impact will depend on the Treasury’s actions.

“We will be watching to see how a decision will affect our ATMs, but at this point we just don’t know enough,” says Tom Kelly, spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s second-largest bank-ATM owner with 15,406 machines.

James Phillips, North American sales director for Triton Systems of Delaware, a Long Beach, Miss.-based off-premise ATM manufacturer, believes the changes likely will have little, if any, affect on ATM makers. “We see different banknotes in a number of countries, and we work with them,” he says “Our biggest expense involves testing banknotes in our ATMs to see if they are correctly dispensed. We also comment to various countries’ treasury departments about their banknotes.”

Canadian and United Kingdom banknotes differ in height and width so blind individuals can identify denominations, and they are brightly colored so visually impaired individuals can more easily identify them, Phillips says. U.S. District Judge James Robertson noted in his 2006 decision only the U.S. prints bills identical in size for all denominations.

ATM independent sales organizations believe the changes could have a big impact on their operations.

Executives of Cardtronics Inc., one of the nation’s largest ATM ISOs, wrote in its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that the company and others could be forced to upgrade their machines’ hardware and software, depending on how the Treasury Department proceeds. Cardtronics did not say how much it might have to spend upgrading its more 18,000 U.S.-owned machines. The company owned or managed 33,165 machines at the end of December in the U.S., UK and Mexico.

If the bureau decides to print different sizes for $5, $20,$50 and $100 banknotes, it will be costly for ISOs, says James Hanisch, executive vice president of Co-op Financial Services, a Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based credit-union organization that operates a surcharge-free ATM network of 28,000 machines. “It will cost $3,000 to $5,000 per machine [to install] banknote-holding canisters and new cash dispensers,” Hanisch says.

Bryan C. Bauer, president of Kahuna ATM Solutions, a Bloomington, Ill.-based ISO, agrees changing banknotes’ size would cost the industry considerable expense to upgrade machines. Kahuna operates approximately 10,000 ATMs.

Robertson’s order does not apply to the $1 bill. It also will not apply to the $100 bill, which Engraving and Printing currently is redesigning.

ATMs overwhelming issue $20 banknotes. The bureau’s Dickens declined comment about when the $20 would undergo a design change and whether it would be the first U.S. banknote to comply with the court’s ruling.

If the bureau keeps banknotes their current size but adds Braille, the cost would be difficult to determine, Hanisch says. The notes could work fine in some ATM cash dispensers but make others inoperable, he says.

Fewer Braille banknotes would fit into ATM-dispensing canisters, says Leon Majors, president of the payments systems practice at Salisbury, Md.-based Phoenix Marketing International.

The bureau likely will not print Braille banknotes, says Triton’s Phillips. “Our research shows less than 10% of the blind and visually impaired read Braille,” he says.

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