Braille Monitor                                                             February 2007



Is the Failure to Produce Tactile Currency
Really a Matter of Discrimination?

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerBraille money has been a minor topic of discussion among blind people for as long as I can remember. The way blind people handle coinage and bills was the subject of a lesson (an informal one, as I remember it) that I received during my early grade school years. Coins are not difficult to distinguish from one another tactilely. The bills that form the majority of currency present a somewhat greater challenge, but it is largely a manageable one. Stories abound regarding blind people who insist that they be paid only in one-dollar bills, but the vast majority of blind people receive, manage, disburse, and use bills of higher denominations as a matter of routine.

Most blind people have devised a system for keeping track of paper currency--folding different denominations different ways, separating different denominations into different pockets or different parts of a wallet or purse, or (in rare instances) creating tactile identification marks on bills of different denominations. In a customary transaction involving paper currency, a blind person transferring a bill identifies the denomination before releasing it to the person receiving it. In accepting paper currency, a blind person ordinarily asks that the bills be identified as they are received. Blind merchants ask that the bills they receive be identified publicly. In some instances blind merchants employ a paper money identifier to verify the denomination of a bill. However, in most cases the verbal exchange with the sighted person transferring the bill is sufficient for identification.

From time to time somebody gets the bright idea to ask the Congress to create Braille money. The National Federation of the Blind has been asked for its opinion regarding the creation of Braille money on many occasions. The response to this request for information usually includes these elements:

1) Printing Braille on money has been tested. The Braille wears out with extreme rapidity. Money identified with Braille becomes unusable in its tactile form after only a very short time in circulation.

2) Paper currency of different sizes or shapes could be made that would be identifiable by touch. However, unless the person managing the currency has the different sized or shaped bills to compare, it is frequently difficult to tell what denominations are present. The cost of modifying the currency management technology to accept bills of different sizes or shapes is high for the minimal benefit that would result.

3) We believe that many legal changes are essential to ensure the right of the blind to full participation in society. Even if a change in the nature of the paper currency is desirable, it is not of sufficient importance to warrant our attention and the attention of Congress. Other things should be done first. Because the management of paper currency is well within the capacity of the blind, changing the currency to gain a minor convenience is not justified. For these reasons during the nearly forty years that I have participated in the National Federation of the Blind, we as an organization have consistently decided not to put substantial effort into changing the paper currency.
In 1994 at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in Detroit, Michigan, the members of the Federation discussed changes in the currency. Our general approach to the currency was set forth in Resolution 94-07. That resolution says:

WHEREAS, the United States Department of the Treasury is examining alternatives to the present currency for the purposes of making counterfeiting more difficult and for making currency more compatible with modern technology; and

WHEREAS, revisions to the present currency may include variations in color, raised markings, bar coding, or other electronically readable formats; and

WHEREAS, it is a widespread misconception that blind people cannot handle their own money because they cannot see it; and

WHEREAS, it is beyond dispute that blind people can, in fact, handle their own money; however, bills which can be identified by other than conventional print could be more convenient for everyone, may be a necessity to safeguard against counterfeiting, and may be desirable to take the best advantage of evolving technology: Now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this seventh day of July, 1994, in the City of Detroit, Michigan, that this organization express the interest of blind people in the discussion of a modernized form of currency so that any changes which may eventually be made will include methods of identifying money by other than strictly visual means; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this Federation, notwithstanding its expressed interest in the ultimate decisions on currency changes, do all in its power correctly to inform the public that blind people can and do successfully handle money in its present form.

In the spring of 2002 the American Council of the Blind and certain individuals sued the Treasury of the United States and others on the grounds that the paper currency of our country was not tactilely identifiable by blind individuals and that the failure of the Treasury to produce such currency constituted discrimination against the blind. Inasmuch as most of us who are blind have been using paper currency without major difficulty, the National Federation of the Blind thought the lawsuit was primarily an effort on the part of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) to gain publicity. Many thoughtful leaders of the blind felt that the ACB's publicity stunt was damaging to the blind not only because it focused attention on a putative problem that did not exist but also that it would present the capacity of the blind in a false and misleading manner. If blind people are incapable of managing paper currency, how devastating is the limitation of blindness? We felt that this kind of presentation would lead to the assertion that blind people were incapable of participation in commerce without substantial alteration of the documents or papers involved in financial transactions. To give only one example, if a check is not tactilely identifiable, is the signature of a blind person upon it valid? The answer to the question might be that the signature is not. If this were to become the result of the argument that the paper currency discriminates against the blind, the effect upon blind people would be devastating indeed. We in the National Federation of the Blind have fought for the proposition that the signature of a blind person is valid upon such documents, whether they are tactilely identifiable or not. To assert anything else would be to challenge the right of blind people to engage in the commerce of the world.

Fundamental to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is the belief that blind people can operate effectively within our society as it currently exists with only minor modifications of the tools used for participation in that society. How much alteration in the tools of participation is needed for our effective participation? This question is at the heart of the argument about creating a tactile currency. Tactile currency would be convenient and beneficial to the blind. However, it would cost a great deal to create it and even more to implement its use. The most frequently suggested method for creating a tactilely identifiable currency is to print bills of different sizes for different denominations. If this method of producing currency were to be adopted, the machines used to manage currency would require alteration. The cash registers employed throughout the country would need modified drawers. This is only the beginning of the cost. The bank machines, the vending machines, the currency-counting machines, and other paper-currency-managing tools would require alteration. If we who are blind expect our government, our businesses, and our citizenry to meet these costs, the benefit must be sufficiently large to justify the demand. What we said about the lawsuit brought against the Treasury was, "Show us a problem that exists. Then we'll join in urging that it be solved."

Of course the currency contains identifiable visual markings for the sighted. Why could it not also contain tactilely identifiable markings for the blind? Undoubtedly such currency could be manufactured. However, if no need for it has been demonstrated, the decision to produce such currency is a matter for policy determination by the government rather than a requirement imposed by law.

On November 28, 2006, the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia issued a Memorandum Order declaring that the Treasury of the United States discriminates against the blind when it fails to issue tactilely identifiable currency. In this decision, the court said, "Most people with low vision, and all blind people, are incapable of looking at American currency and distinguishing one denomination from another. In order to know whether the bill in her hand is worth $5 or $50, a blind person must ask someone else for help or use a machine that can identify the denomination and speak it out loud." Although the court decision is many pages in length, this passage is at the heart of the ruling. The paper money of the United States is not tactilely identifiable. Blind people cannot identify the paper money without the help of a sighted person or of a machine. The government could have produced tactilely identifiable money. The cost to do so is small when compared to expenditures for creating a national currency system. Consequently the court ruled that discrimination has occurred and that the government is required to adopt a plan to issue currency that the blind can identify without help.

In 2002, shortly after the lawsuit had been initiated, the National Federation of the Blind considered the assertion of discrimination. As a result of the discussion, the Federation adopted Resolution 2002-25. This resolution states:

WHEREAS, on May 2, 2002, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and two individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the treasurer of the United States alleging that the federal government is in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, 29 U.S.C. Section 794, by issuing all U.S. currency in an identical size, color, and texture, which renders various denominations indistinguishable by touch, alleging that the blind are thus largely excluded from enjoying the benefits of monetary transactions and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief by requiring the Department of the Treasury to implement design changes in the currency to make the various denominations distinguishable by touch and color; and

WHEREAS, this lawsuit is based on a false and misleading assumption that the inability to distinguish banknote denominations by touch largely excludes the blind from participating in commerce and other ordinary activities of life; and

WHEREAS, the theory of this suit is disproved by the lives of tens of thousands of blind persons who live normal lives and participate in commerce every day without difficulty; and

WHEREAS, more than having difficulty with money, blind people are apt to suffer great harm from the attendant publicity surrounding this suit, fostering and reinforcing the notion that the blind cannot easily handle currency as it now exists and, for example, needlessly creating an albatross around the neck of any blind person seeking employment in any position involving handling money; and

WHEREAS, to the extent that currency identification is truly a problem for individual blind people, various technological devices capable of identifying banknotes and audibly announcing their denomination are available for sale, and in fact giving every blind person in the country such a device would be simpler and cheaper than re-engineering the nation's cash-handling capacity; and

WHEREAS, in view of its false premise and lack of merit, there is little likelihood that the relief sought by this lawsuit will ever be granted, thus using the blind in a publicity stunt and showing little regard for the genuine needs and concerns of blind people; and

WHEREAS, more than the adverse publicity resulting from the filing of this suit itself, there is a substantial risk of a ruling that could nullify the potential benefits of Section 504 by narrowing its scope and coverage or the law altogether, as has happened with other recent court decisions in the area of disability: Now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this ninth day of July, 2002, in the City of Louisville, Kentucky, that this organization take all appropriate and legally available steps to advise the court that the failure to have U.S. currency issued as sought by the plaintiffs in this suit is not an act of discrimination against the blind and in such a fashion that the accompanying ruling does not harm current and future efforts to achieve genuinely needed and desirable accommodations for the blind; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization take steps to counter the adverse effects of the harmful publicity arising from this particular lawsuit and renew efforts to educate the public that the blind can participate in commerce on equal terms and fully enjoy the benefits of U.S. currency as it now exists.

What is the harm that this ruling of the federal court is intended to stop? Blind people use currency—most of the time without problem and even without much conscious worry. Can blind people be defrauded? Of course we can. The opinion of the court says, "Unable to identify the value of paper money without help from others, blind and low-vision individuals are always at risk of being cheated." What the opinion of the court does not say is that sighted people who can identify currency are themselves always at risk of being cheated. The assumption of the judge who wrote the opinion is that the inability to see increases the risk. Is this true, or is it simply an assumption? How often does cheating of the blind occur? Has anyone demonstrated that the blind are cheated more often than the sighted? If this demonstration has not been made, what is the basis for declaring that discrimination exists?

The blind people with whom I have discussed the matter believe that cheating is rare. Comments to me indicate that blind people are cheated no more often than sighted people are. However, although the judge did not have evidence of a pattern of cheating, he did express an opinion. He said, "The frequency of such acts against blind and low-vision individuals [acts of cheating] is impossible to measure because victims may not know that they have been deceived unless someone tells them." This statement indicates the judge’s fundamental misunderstanding of blind people.

Blind people are not so lacking in discernment that we don't eventually discover when we have been defrauded. If somebody were to defraud me of my money, sooner or later I would notice. Part of the process of managing money is having a sense of how much there is. When the money is suddenly gone, it is not hard for me to know that it has disappeared. For the judge to assert that I wouldn't notice when my money is gone is an indication of the capacity he attributes to me as a blind person. Inasmuch as the judge has admitted that the record in the case does not contain evidence of a pattern of cheating, the decision he makes is based upon fear--his fear of the potential for fraud even though no evidence of it exists. Because blind people might be defrauded, the judge asserts that we face the inability to participate in the program of the United States which prints and distributes currency, and he determines that our inability to participate results from the failure of the Treasury to produce tactilely identifiable money. This failure, he says, is discrimination. The decision is based on speculation and emotionalism--not fact.

Shortly after the issuance of the decision by the federal judge, I submitted a guest editorial to the New York Times for consideration, which was printed on December 18, 2006. It says:

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.

Part of the nuisance of blindness is managing printed documents. Until print disappears (which I suspect will not be soon), blind people will have to find a way to read it. Print is everywhere, and getting at the information it represents is one of the elements of the problem that blind people have. When methods for managing the information that is presented visually have been devised, claiming discrimination to alter the printed matter is unreasonable. This is true even if it would be desirable to create tactile representations of the print.

Charging the government, business owners, or individuals with violation of the law is a serious matter. It should not be done unless there is serious harm to redress. Built into consideration of discrimination based on disability is the notion of reasonable accommodation. Sometimes it is essential that print be modified for blind people to participate in a program. Unless the modification alters the nature of the program, the change is required. Reasonable accommodations are demanded by law unless they would cause an undue burden to the entity making them. Consideration of discrimination, therefore, incorporates the notion that an alteration in a program or activity must provide sufficient benefit to be worth the cost. If the cost is great and the benefit is small, no discrimination exists. In this case no demonstration of urgent need has been made. Consequently, the decision of the court is unsupported.