A Victory for the Blind

A new court ruling could change paper currency to help the blind

May 21, 2008

After a six-year court battle, the American Council for the Blind (ACB) landed a big victory this week. A federal court ruled on Tuesday, in a 2-to-1 decision, that the U.S. currency system discriminates against the blind. The court found that since every paper bill more or less feels the same, blind people are unable to distinguish between different denominations. The ACB claims that this denies the blind the right—under the federal Rehabilitation Act—to fully participate in society.

President of the American Council for the Blind, Mitch Pomerantz, who is blind, holds up different U.S. bills. He cannot tell the difference between them.
President of the American Council for the Blind, Mitch Pomerantz, who is blind, holds up different U.S. bills. He cannot tell the difference between them.

The ACB filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department in 2002 and requested changes to the currency. The Treasury Department fought the case for six years.

Time to Change

Other countries have already made changes to their paper money to accommodate blind citizens. In Canada, paper money features a system similar to Braille. It uses raised dots in the upper right hand corner on the face side of the bill to help blind people read the amount. In Europe, the Euro contains a foil texture that differentiates between bills and in Australia there's a raised feature on the bills. So far, more than 100 countries around the world vary the size of their bills and others include features that help the blind.

“I don't think we should have to rely on people to tell us what our money is," said Mitch Pomerantz, president of the ACB. Aside from getting help from others, some blind and visually impaired people use electronic currency readers, which can be pricey.

Recently, the U.S. government has made some changes to paper money. Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department unveiled a colorful new $5 bill with advanced security features which included a large purple "5" on the bottom right of the back of the bill to help those with poor eyesight. The $10, $20, and $50 bills also underwent high-tech makeovers, however, none include differences that would help the blind.

“Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill," wrote Judge Judith Rogers as part of the court decision.

The Trouble with Change

The Treasury Department, which is currently reviewing the court's decision, argues that changing the size of U.S. bills would cost vending machine companies billions of dollars. They would have to redesign their machines for the new bills. But this week's ruling could force the Treasury Department to make different sizes of bills and create distinguishing features such as raised markings on the bills. However, these changes could take years to put into place.

Not all blind people agree with the court's decision. The National Federation for the Blind says that it does not find the U.S. currency to be discriminatory to blind citizens. Marc Maurer, the group's president, who is blind, says many blind people use paper money every day without difficulty. He argues that the ruling will foster the misconception that blind people cannot function as part of society. However he does agree that changes to the currency would make things easier for blind people. 

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