Wednesday, November 29, 2006


What do you think of this? is reporting that, "U.S. District Judge James Robertson said keeping all U.S. currency the same size and texture violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs." According to Fox, Robertson has given the Treasury Department "...10 days to start working on new bills that the blind can tell apart." Treasury lawyers argued against the imposition of changes, saying it would "make it harder to prevent counterfeiting." The judge, however, in his ruling, wrote the equivalent of, "Hey, over 180 other countries have different sized bills, so there's no reason we shouldn't be able to do the same."

The ruling is getting mixed reviews from advocacy groups for the blind. Some think it is a step forward in enabling independence for the blind. Others see the issue as a distraction:

But John Paré, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's largest organization representing blind people, said identifying the money is hardly the most difficult obstacle for the blind to overcome.

"The focus for improving the lives of blind Americans needs to be put on earning money not figuring out how to identify money," he said. "Over 70 percent of blind Americans are under-employed or unemployed and this is what needs to be addressed.

"It really is distracting to have this lawsuit," he said, since assistance should concentrate on people "who don't have the money in the first place."

I have a mixed response to this decree, part of me agreeing that it's reasonable to make it easier for the blind to use money without the necessity of relying on possibly unscrupulous strangers, folding different denominations in different ways to differentiate between them, or buying expensive ($300) portable reader machines. Part of me, however, believes that the Treasury department would not resist the changes if there were not, indeed, counterfeiting issues to take into account--although, how size affects counterfeitability, I have no idea. I can understand how texture can impact the recognition of counterfeits, as people who work in banks learn to tell a counterfeit simply by feel.

One question I have in relation to the decree regards cost-effectiveness. The article reports that there are 7 million blind people in the U.S., and I wonder if the more frugal alternative would not simply be for the government to purchase a portable money reader for anyone who needs one, rather than to spend an enormous amount of money to design and print an entirely new money supply. I understand that money wears out and new bills are printed all the time, but entirely new designs, papers, presses, cutting equipment, and differently sized storage and transport equipment are not required with those new printings, and those changes must include an enormous amount of expense. Part of my objection is the immediacy with which the judge's decision demands change. I can see a long-term strategy to implement changes as equipment wears out, or other circumstances warrant changes anyway, but overhauling the whole system "yesterday" seems a bit extreme.

Given all of the more serious things going on in the world today, you may not consider this as worth much attention. Some days I might not either, but it is an example to me of the ways our society has to balance the needs of a small minority of her citizens with the expense and inconvenience to her general population. Will the value to the blind be worth the costs, especially if there are other options (like the reader) available? The government has required itself, and private business for that matter, to accommodate the accessibility needs of the handicapped. Should reworking the monetary system to make it easier for the blind to spend their money be part and parcel with that, or is it, as John Paré says, a distraction from the real issue of handicapped employment? Should the money for transforming our currency rather be spent on making it easier for the blind to hold a job? Should some of the money be spent to provide readers to those who need them? (I'm sure the government could bring the price of those readers down substantially with a bulk purchase.) Should the money be spent at all? Should there be a gradual shift to new currency over a long period of time as equipment wears out, rather than the immediate change the litigants and the judge are requiring? I'm kind of up in the air on this, although I am tilting a bit, and would be interested in anyone else's opinion.

Hat tip: IMAO