- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

Blind Americans were torn between differing definitions of independence in a recent ruling from a federal appeals court in Washington.

The American Council of the Blind won. The National Federation of the Blind lost.

The two advocacy groups for visually impaired people could not agree whether U.S. currency should be redesigned with features that would enable blind people to feel which denomination of paper money they were handling.

“We don’t need sympathy, we need opportunities,” said John G. Pare, spokesman for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for the visually impaired.

The group says a court order for the U.S. Treasury Department to redesign the currency with a different feel for each denomination sends a message that blind people are incompetent as employees.

“There’s very little that needs to be done to have a blind person as an employee,” Mr. Pare said. “This just makes this misconception worse rather than better.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said a currency that does not accommodate the special needs of the blind means the government is discriminating against them based on their disability, which violates the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 2-to-1 decision, U.S. currency is likely to have a different look and feel to it within a few years that includes raised bumps or different materials for each bill.

The Washington-based American Council of the Blind sued the Treasury Department, which argued that a redesign of the U.S. currency created an unreasonable burden on the U.S. government. The National Federation of the Blind filed an amicus brief in support of the Treasury Department.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing hired a research firm to determine the costs and best methods for redesigning the currency. Their report is due early next year.

About 3.7 million Americans are visually impaired, according to the National Academy of Sciences. About 200,000 have no vision.

Advocates for the disabled say the respect for human dignity that underlies many decisions involving the disabled was as much an issue in the case as the U.S. currency itself.

The National Federation of the Blind seemed to be speaking out for “a sense of independence that they have learned to adapt to the existing system and work around the barriers,” said Larry Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates, a San Francisco public interest law firm. “That seems to be where this opposition comes from.”

Mr. Paradis is wheelchair-bound.

“There are some people who just take pride in being able to navigate around in the world and the community without feeling that the community needs to adapt to them,” he said.

Mr. Paradis said he understands both points of view. Some blind people want the independence of being able to identify currency with a touch of their fingers rather than relying on scanners that read denominations for them or, worse yet, other people who tell them the amount of money they are holding.

“While it’s good there are people who have learned to adapt and overcome a particular barrier, our concern is for those who can’t,” Mr. Paradis said. “This happens to be one of the rare areas where there does appear to be a disagreement in the [blind] community.”

American Council of the Blind officials say they are perplexed by the National Federation of the Blind’s reasoning.

“It’s hard to say” why the National Federation of the Blind opposed a redesign of the currency, said Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. “The fact of the matter is that if you have to rely on someone else to tell you what your money is or you have to rely on technology to identify it, then you’re not independent.”

The Treasury Department has 90 days from the May 20 ruling to determine whether it will ask the Court of Appeals for a rehearing or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. No decision on an appeal has been announced yet.

Above the Law runs Mondays. Call Tom Ramstack at 202/636-3180 or e-mail tramstack@washingtontimes.com.

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