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Using cash with confidence

01 September 2016

Today, the launch of the new $5 banknote, which has a tactile feature, is a significant outcome for the Australian blindness and low vision community, to which, I belong.

Let me explain. One of the fondest memories from my childhood is playing Monopoly. Sometimes my parents, sisters and I would play the short game which took about an hour and a half. Sometimes, we'd play the long game, which would often stretch into the night.

But as good as my game plans were there was always an extra obstacle I faced, that my competitors did not.  

For a blind kid, like me, handling Monopoly money was tricky. Every banknote was the exact same length and width. So, I had to rely on other people – my Monopoly opponents – to help me sort it into piles. If there's one thing I learnt, it was to never trust a Monopoly opponent with your money.

This was a lesson for life in the real word.

Research conducted by Vision Australia found that 61 per cent of people who are totally blind have trouble differentiating between the banknote denominations and nearly half of these people do not receive the right change on occasion. 93 per cent of people who are blind or have low vision have advised they would welcome a tactile feature on Australian banknotes.

In my early childhood, Australian banknotes were slightly different lengths and different widths. The measurement differences were fairly small so I couldn’t identify a particular banknote reliably by touch alone. I had to use specialist plastic gauges that measured the length or width of a banknote. The next generation of banknotes were all the same width which made it even less reliable to identify a banknote just by touch.

I once attempted to put braille labels on the Monopoly money. It helped, but there was so much of it that I quickly realised it would take a long time to label them all. Back in the real world, people often ask me why braille isn't embossed on our banknotes. Although a number of countries have tried this approach, the braille dots squash after a while, and eventually, you can't feel them at all.

In the last few years, developments in note-printing technology have made it possible to include a tactile feature as part of the structure of the banknotes themselves, rather than being embossed or added to the banknotes later. The tactile feature will last as long as the banknote itself and, importantly, won't fade over time.

The introduction of the tactile feature is one of the most significant inclusive actions to take place in my life. Having to rely on other people or a device to identify banknotes just isn't the kind of independence and participation in community life that leads to dignity, equality and inclusion.

When I get a new $5 banknote, I won't be able to use it to buy hotels on Old Kent Road. But, I will be able to buy a cappuccino. And, as I drink it, I will reflect with pride that as an Australian who is blind, I will always be able to accurately, instantly and independently identify this banknote. And in time, all other denominations, with the same ease.

Bruce Maguire is a policy advisor at Vision Australia.

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