rules paper money discriminates against blind
By David G. Savage
The look and feel of
America's paper money may have to change, now
that a U.S. appeals court here has ruled that
blind and other visually impaired people are
discriminated against by the nation's currency.
Canada has put "embossed dots" on its bills that
vary by denomination, while the Euro includes a
foil feature that can be detected by touch, the
judges said. The United States is nearly alone
in the world in using bills that are the same in
size and color in all denominations, they added.
"A paper currency designed for the sighted means
that millions of visually impaired individuals
are dependent on the kindness of others . . . in
using U.S. currency," Judge Judith Rogers said
Tuesday in a 2-1 decision. This "denial of
meaningful access to U.S. currency" for blind
persons violates a 1973 law that prohibits the
government from discriminating against people
because of their disabilities, she concluded.
The court did not say what must be done to cure
the problem. Treasury Secretary Henry M.
Paulson, or more likely his successor, can
"choose the means of bringing U.S. currency into
compliance," the judges said.
The Treasury Department said it was reviewing
the ruling and had no comment. The government
could ask the full appeals court to reconsider
the matter, or it could appeal the issue to the
Supreme Court. It has 90 days to decide its next
"This is an important victory for people who are
blind and visually impaired," said Mark Richert,
director of public policy for the American
Council of the Blind. "We . . . look forward to
the day when people with vision loss have as
reliable access to paper money as everyone
His view is not shared by all advocates for the
blind. Marc Maurer, president of the National
Federation of the Blind, sharply criticized the
rival group's lawsuit as a "publicity stunt"
It is "damaging to the blind not only because it
focused attention on a putative problem that did
not exist but also [because] it would present
the capacity of the blind in a false and
misleading manner," said Maurer, who is blind.
In his view, handling currency can be a
"challenge, but it is largely a manageable one."
About 3.7 million people in this country are
visually impaired, according to a National
Academy of Sciences study cited by the court,
and 200,000 of those have no vision at all.
The Rehabilitation Act and its ban on government
discrimination against the disabled had a major
effect across the nation in the 1970s and '80s.
It forced public buildings, libraries, schools
and colleges to add ramps, walkways and
elevators to accommodate people in wheelchairs
and to add aural or visual signals to aid those
who were blind or deaf.
Six years ago, the American Council of the Blind
sued the Treasury Department on behalf of two
men whose vision was badly impaired. They said
that using money is "an essential ingredient of
independent living," yet "for millions of
Americans with blindness or low vision, it is
impossible to recognize the denomination of bank
They sought a court order that would require the
government to accommodate their disability by
changing the size, color and feel of paper
currency above the $1 bill. They argued that
this would not pose a great burden for the U.S.
government, noting that most other nations had
already made such changes.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the blind
plaintiffs two years ago, but the Treasury
Department appealed, arguing that the change
would prove costly. About 7 million vending
machines dispense food and beverages across the
nation, and retooling or replacing them to take
bills of different sizes would cost $3.5
billion, an industry group said.
Government lawyers also questioned whether
embossed bills would last long enough to be
worthwhile. And they said blind people can use
credit cards or rely on sales clerks for help.
But the appeals court on Tuesday rejected the
government's claims as unconvincing.