Illegal Cash: Currency Discriminates Against Blind

In a major ruling that could force changes to the nation’s currency, an influential federal appeals court ruled today that the uniform design of U.S. paper money discriminates against the blind and violates a federal disability law.

The decision, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, could require significant changes in paper money so that the blind can distinguish between different denominations and more easily and independently use cash.

“The current design of paper money springs from the world of the sighted,” the court said in a 2-1 decision. “Upon casual inspection, anyone with good vision can readily discern the value of U.S. currency; yet even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill.”

That uniform design, the court said, “appears to have been a result of the type of thoughtlessness and indifference” that the federal Rehabilitation Act, a disability discrimination law, was designed to prohibit.

The United States is one of the few major countries that does not vary the size or design of its currency to distinguish between denominations. Disability advocates argue that the uniform design of paper money denies the blind meaningful access to currency.

“Imagine if you had to rely on the good faith of complete strangers to count your money. It is truly is an unreasonable burden to put on anyone—and that’s really the case with the blind,” said Jeffrey Lovitky, the lawyer for the American Council for the Blind, which challenged the design of paper currency. “In conducting any kind of currency transaction, they are required to rely on the good faith of strangers.”

Lovitky said today’s ruling—the first of its kind by a federal appeals court—was a “landmark” that should force key design changes.

Unless the government takes the case to the Supreme Court, the ruling means the Treasury Department will have to develop proposed changes to the currency. Some could be simple and effective, Lovitky said.

“There are many different, currently available, technically feasible methods they could choose,” he said.

The Euro, for example, has a small piece of foil on bills that varies in size based on denomination. Canadian currency is embossed with dots. Swedish currency has a texture that could be altered, depending on denomination.

Lovitky said it would cost about $50 million to change the currency, an amount that would be absorbed by the banking system.

The case came about in 2002, when the American Council for the Blind sued, alleging the design of US paper money violates a federal law that prohibits the government from discriminating against people with disabilities.

The government had argued that the design of money did not impose an unreasonable burden on the blind because they had alternatives to cash, such as credit cards, and could rely on portable currency readers or the assistance of strangers. It also argued that changing the currency would be expensive and impact third parties, such as the vending machine industry.

But the appeals court rejected those arguments, calling them unpersuasive, and at one point, “somewhat astounding.”

“The (government’s) argument is analogous to contending that merely because the mobility impaired may be able either to rely on the assistance of strangers or to crawl on all fours in navigating architectural obstacles, they are not denied meaningful access to public buildings,” the court said, in a decision written by Judge Judith Rogers and joined by Judge Thomas Griffith.

Such dependence, the court said, “places the visually impaired at a distinct disadvantage in two-way transactions involving paper currency because they can neither control the actions of those which home they deal nor independently discern whether the paper currency they receive is correct.”

Judge Raymond Randolph dissented, arguing the court had taken up the case prematurely.

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