Future Reflections  Winter/Spring 2007

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The Midas Touch

Reprinted from the New York Times, December 18, 2006

Marc MaurerEditor’s Note: The title of this article refers, of course, to the fairy tale about King Midas. His greed for gold led him to ask for something (the ability to turn whatever he touched into gold) that ultimately was not in his best interest. In fact, his golden touch ended up destroying that which was most precious to him. In the National Federation of the Blind, we are most careful about what special accommodations we ask for. History has taught us to look carefully for the unintended consequences of changes that, on the surface, might seem like a good thing for the blind. Here is Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, discussing the recent controversy surrounding the topic of whether or not the paper currency in the United States must be altered for the benefit of blind people:

In a ruling in a lawsuit last month, Judge James Robertson of Federal District Court said that United States currency discriminates against blind people because bills are all the same size and cannot be distinguished by touch. His decision was applauded by some advocates for the blind, including the American Council of the Blind, which brought the lawsuit. But as president of the National Federation of the Blind, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of the blind, I believe that Judge Robertson’s ruling is wrong.

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. If a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone because of race, color, creed, or disability, then discrimination occurs. Sometimes people with disabilities are barred from certain facilities or services because of the way they are designed. A person in a wheelchair cannot climb the steps of a public building; if the building does not have a wheelchair ramp, that person is prevented from entering it. In another example, my group 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 both cases, a person with a disability is kept out of a public place or denied use of a service, just as African-Americans were not welcome at whites-only lunch counters.

But while blind people cannot identify paper currency by touch, that does not prevent us from spending money. When we hand merchants our 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; if a question does arise about a particular transaction, it is the responsibility of the blind person to sort out the matter. Identifying money by feel, as the blind are often able to do in many other 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 to cry “discrimination” when no discrimination has occurred. The blind of America will fight discrimination wherever we find it, but we achieve nothing by falsely portraying ourselves as victims and engaging in frivolous litigation.

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