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Do Dollars Discriminate?

Two views of a judge's ruling that paper currency discriminates against the blind.

Most Americans wouldn't like depending on the goodwill of others to tell the difference between $1 and $20 bills.
Melanie Brunson
Executive Director, American Council of the Blind

Close your eyes, reach into your wallet, and pull out a piece of paper money. Can you tell what denomination the bill is without looking at it?

If you can't, you are not alone. This is what hundreds of thousands of blind people all across the United States experience on a daily basis.

Approximately 180 other countries have paper money that allows people with vision problems to tell denominations apart: either bills of different sizes or bills with some kind of "touchable" feature. The American Council of the Blind has been trying since the 1970s to get the Treasury Department to make U.S. paper currency discernible by nonvisual means, but the department has refused to address the issue.

So in 2002, the American Council of the Blind sued the Treasury Department, alleging that the government is violating its own requirement to make all federal programs, services, and activities accessible to people with disabilities. In November, a federal judge agreed. (The government is appealing.)

Still, many oppose the idea of redesigning U.S. paper currency to make it accessible to the blind. Redesigning the bills and adapting vending machines that "read" money would be costly, they argue. True, but those would be one-time expenses.

The blind have devised ways to fold money so we can identify bills for future use, but we can only do that after someone has told us what the bills are. I don't think most Americans would like depending on the goodwill of others to tell the difference between $1 and $20 bills.

There would be another benefit to accessible currency. About 70 percent of blind Americans of working age are unemployed. Being able to distinguish bills on our own would greatly expand the types of jobs we could do.

Redesigning bills so they're distinguishable to the blind will make it easier for all Americans, regardless of their vision, to tell bills apart. And it's the right thing to do.

Identifying money by feel may be more convenient, but inconvenience is not the same thing as discrimination.
Marc Maurer
President , National Federation of the Blind

I believe the federal court was wrong in ruling that U.S. paper currency discriminates against the blind because it cannot be distinguished by touch.

Discrimination occurs when the blind are barred from enjoying benefits, goods, or services. This definition of discrimination is what most people understand the word to mean. For example, if a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone because of the person's race, color, creed, or disability, that is discrimination.

Sometimes people with disabilities are prevented from using certain facilities or services because of the way they are designed. The National Federation of the Blind is suing the Target Corporation because the company's Web site doesn't accommodate the special text-reading software that the blind use to surf the Internet. In this case, a person with a disability is denied the use of a service, just as blacks at one time were not welcome at whites-only lunch counters.

But while blind people cannot identify paper currency by touch, it does not prevent us from spending money. When we hand merchants money, they take it and provide us with the goods or services we have paid for, no questions asked. People with whom we transact business provide us with correct change if needed, and we then organize the money in a manner that allows us to identify it in the future. We transact business in this way every day.

There is no evidence that the blind are shortchanged more often than the sighted. Identifying money by feel, as the blind are able to do in some countries, may be more convenient, but inconvenience is not the same thing as discrimination.

While it is crucial that minorities have a voice in society, it is also the responsibility of every minority group to use that voice wisely and not cry "discrimination'' when no discrimination has occurred.