- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Close your eyes, reach into your wallet and try to distinguish between a $1 bill and a $5 bill. Impossible? It’s also discriminatory, a federal appeals court says.

Because all paper money feels pretty much the same, the government is denying blind people meaningful access to the currency, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled yesterday. The decision could force the Treasury Department to make bills of different sizes or to print them with raised markings or other distinguishing features.

The American Council of the Blind sued for such changes, but the government has been fighting the case for about six years.

The U.S. acknowledges that the current design hinders blind people, but it argues that they have adapted. Some rely on store clerks to help, some use credit cards and others fold certain corners to help distinguish between bills.

“I don’t think we should have to rely on people to tell us what our money is,” said Mitch Pomerantz, the Council of the Blind president.

Others say they manage but not always easily.

“When I pay for something and I get change back, I’m very slow and methodical. I’ll ask, ‘Is this the 10? Is this the five? Is this the one?’ ” said Kim Charlson, the library director at the Perkins School for the Blind, which is the famous Helen Keller’s alma mater.

Some use electronic currency readers. But they can be expensive, and they sometimes have problems with new $20 bills.

“It’s slow,” said Sam McClain, who manages a snack shop in a legislative office building near the Georgia Capitol. He has a currency reader but usually relies on the honesty of his customers. “Sometimes I have 10 or 15 people in here, and I can’t use it.”

The court ruled 2-1 that such adaptations were insufficient under the Rehabilitation Act. The government might as well argue there’s no need to make buildings accessible to wheelchairs because handicapped people can crawl on all fours or ask passers-by for help, the court said.

“Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill. The secretary has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch,” Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote for the majority.

The court didn’t say how to design currency. That’s up to the Treasury Department, and the ruling forces the department to address what the court called a discriminatory problem.

That could take years.

The government could ask for a rehearing by the full appeals court or challenge the decision to the Supreme Court.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said the department was reviewing the opinion. She noted that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints the nation’s currency, recently hired a contractor to consider ways to help the blind. The results will be available early next year, she said.

While the government has been fighting to overturn the lower court ruling, it has been taking some steps toward modifying U.S. currency for the visually impaired. The most recent currency redesign of the $5 bill introduced in March features a giant “5” printed in purple on one side of the bill to help those with vision problems distinguish the bill.

Treasury has previously considered making different sizes of bills but ran into opposition from makers of vending and change machines. Government lawyers raised this issue in court, saying it could cost billions to redesign vending machines. But the court said such data are murky, especially because one proposed solution would be to leave $1 bills unchanged.



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