Paper money discriminates against blind, court rules
Denominations hard to determine
WASHINGTON - Close your eyes, reach into your wallet, and try to distinguish between a $1 bill and a $5 bill. Impossible? It is also discriminatory, a federal appeals court says.
Since all paper money feels pretty much the same, the government is denying blind people meaningful access to the currency, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled yesterday. The decision could force the Treasury Department to make bills of different sizes or print them with raised markings or other distinguishing features.
The American Council of the Blind sued for such changes, but the government has been fighting the case for about six years.
The government acknowledges that the current design hinders blind people, but it contends that they have adapted. Some rely on store clerks to help, some use credit cards, and others fold certain corners to help distinguish between bills.
"I don't think we should have to rely on people to tell us what our money is," said Mitch Pomerantz, the Council of the Blind president.
Others say they manage but not always easily.
"When I pay for something and I get change back, I'm very slow and methodical. I'll ask, 'Is this the 10? Is this the five? Is this the one?"' said Kim Charlson, the library director at the Perkins School for the Blind, Helen Keller's alma mater.
Some use electronic currency readers. But they can be expensive, and they sometimes have problems with new $20 bills.
"It's slow," said Sam McClain, who manages a snack shop in a legislative office building near the Georgia Capitol. He has a currency reader but usually relies on the honesty of his customers. "Sometimes I have 10 or 15 people in here, and I can't use it."
The court ruled 2-1 that such adaptations were insufficient under the Rehabilitation Act. The government might as well argue that there is no need to make buildings accessible to wheelchairs because handicapped people can crawl on all fours or ask passersby for help, the court said.
"Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill. The secretary has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch," Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote for the majority.
Courts do not decide how to design currency. That is up to the Treasury Department, and the ruling forces the department to address what the court called a discriminatory problem.
That could still take years. But since blindness becomes more common with age, people in their 30s and 40s should know that when they get older, "they will be able to identify their $1 bills from their fives, tens, and twenties," said Pomerantz, of the Council of the Blind.
Redesigned bills could also mean more job opportunities, because employers often hesitate to hire blind workers to handle money, said Charlson, of the Perkins School.
The government could ask for a rehearing by the full appeals court or challenge the decision to the Supreme Court.
Brookly McLaughlin, a Treasury spokeswoman, said the department was reviewing the opinion. She noted that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints the nation's currency, recently hired a contractor to consider ways to help the blind. The results will be available early next year, she said.
The Treasury has previously considered making different sizes of bills but ran into opposition from makers of vending and change machines. Government lawyers raised this issue in court, saying it could cost billions to redesign vending machines.
Given recent currency redesigns, the appeals court ruled the government failed to explain why adding more changes would be an undue burden.