- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Treasury Department must change currencies — potentially changing the size, shape or feel of each denomination — so blind people can use them.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson said that by making different denominations of bills the same size and shape, the government has violated the Rehabilitation Act and denied blind people a way to use money.

The judge did not provide a solution, but ordered Treasury to find one.

Government attorneys argued that adding texture or changing the size of bills would be costly and make it harder to prevent counterfeiting.

The American Council of the Blind, which filed the suit in 2002, proposed a number of solutions that are used in other countries.

In Britain, each denomination is a different size, said Melanie Brunson, the Washington association’s executive director. In Canada, currency has a series of dots in its corners, differentiated by denomination. And other countries use different patterns of raised dots or lines.

“Our intent was to get Treasury to focus enough attention to incorporate those [ideas] or come up with something else to meet the needs of people who can’t read them visually,” Mrs. Brunson said.

About 937,000 Americans are legally blind, which means that their vision is no better than 20/200 when corrected.

Judge Robertson said that if other countries can print denominations that blind people can use without counterfeiting problems, then so can the United States.

The Treasury Department did not return calls for comment.

Government lawyers argued that changing the size of currency could cost up to $228 million in initial costs and $52 million annually to make currency in different sizes. The least expensive change, adding a raised numeral, would cost $45.5 million initially and $16 million annually. The government estimated it would have to spend another $70 million to $90 million in public education for any changes.

“If additional savings could be gained by incorporating the new feature into a larger redesign, such as those that took place in 1996 or 2004, the total burden of adding such a feature would be even smaller,” wrote Judge Robertson, who was appointed by President Clinton in 1994.

In 1996, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began inserting color and larger faces on bills to prevent counterfeiting.

Blind people must ask other people for assistance, fold different denominations in different ways, or keep different denominations in separate parts of wallets or purses, putting them at risk of being cheated, the American Council of the Blind argued in court.

Members of Congress have proposed legislation changing the size and shape of currency, but it has never passed, Judge Robertson wrote in his opinion. The 1996 redesign of the $20 bill included a larger font to identify the $20, which helped people with reduced vision, but did not help blind people.

The judge found that the similarities among the bills is a violation of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination in government programs on the basis of disability.

“We believe this is a very significant step,” Mrs. Brunson said. “This is the first time a judge has ruled that a failure to provide means of identifying currency is a violation of the Rehabilitation Act.”

The judge ordered a status conference in about 30 days.

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