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NIU distributing iBill currency readers to individuals with visual impairments

May 17, 2021
Sue Dalton
Sue Dalton

NIU is now a distribution center for free iBill currency readers that enable people with visual disabilities to sort their paper money.

The designation from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing comes thanks to the work of Sue Dalton, an instructor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

Dalton believes that the devices, powered by AAA batteries, will provide greater independence to users.

“It’s small, it’s easy to use, it’s got very few buttons and it just can be a good tool for people with visual disabilities. It not only identifies a bill with voice outputs, but you can also set it up so that it gives either tones or vibrations, so someone who is deaf-blind also can use it,” Dalton says. “It just gives people confidence that they can take charge of their money. They don’t have to ask for assistance.”

Released in January 2015, iBill devices are among the results of a 2002 lawsuit filed by the American Council of the Blind and two people with visual impairments. The U.S. District Court ruled in 2008 that the Treasury Department must provide meaningful access to U.S. currency in the next redesign.

Accommodations on the bills themselves include large, high-contrast numerals and different colors as permitted. Work also is underway to provide raised, tactile features

The iBills represent an electronic step; to date, more than 82,157 currency readers have been distributed to eligible U.S. citizens and legal residents.

Beth Dalton demonstrates the iBill.
Sue Dalton demonstrates the iBill.

Dalton first held one when she browsed the vendor tables at a national conference on blindness and visual impairments and was given one as a demonstration model.

“They’re happy to give these out. They want people to have these in their hands,” Dalton says. “They started me out with 30 as a supply, and then as it runs out, I let them know how many I’ve distributed, and they’ll replenish as needed.”

She then contacted the bureau to request devices to demonstrate in her SEVI 543: Teaching Activities of Daily Living to Persons with Visual and Multiple Disabilities class, which includes curriculum on money management.

That led to NIU’s invitation to become a federal distribution site, she says.

“In my conversations with Tracy Garrett, a public affairs specialist at the bureau, she suggested that since NIU has a considerably larger population of visually impaired students, and also has one of the largest training programs in visual disabilities, that we should apply to be a distributor,” Dalton says.

“NIU also has very close relationships with many of the blind centers in the states where we send our interns, so this would provide the devices to those agencies as well,” she adds. “This is a great service.”

Dalton’s students who are interning at VA hospitals now can provide iBills directly to the patients there; it’s a relief, she says, for veterans who typically wait up to two months to receive them from the federal government and often are discharged to home before the devices arrive at the hospital.

“When I was at Hines a week or so ago, they were all excited to be able to get it so quickly,” she adds. “I said, ‘I have one right here. I can hand it to you now.’ ”

iBills also appeal to older individuals with visual disabilities, who have a lifelong familiarity with paper bills and might not feel comfortable using mobile apps at cash registers.

“Cash money might seem like it’s not in use much anymore, but people still do us it, and money is still being printed,” Dalton says. “When we think about older people, maybe they aren’t savvy enough to use their phones, or they don’t want to use those, or can’t afford them. These are provided free of charge – and they can identify their money.”

For generations, she adds, people with visual disabilities could manage the cash in their wallets through folding the bills in certain shapes with the assistance of sighted friends. Then, in handing those bills to cashiers, they spoke purposefully.

“You say, ‘I’m handing you a $20 bill,’ ” Dalton says, “and when the cashier comes back, you ask them to identify what they’re putting in your hand to separate it that way.”