In 1994, the members of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) passed a resolution calling for changes to U.S. paper currency that would allow for “identifying money by other than strictly visual means.” NFB also played a leading role in the adoption of House Resolution 122—which was introduced by Representative Baker of Louisiana and passed the House on November 8, 1997. This resolution pointed out that “most blind and visually impaired persons are … required to rely upon others to determine denominations of [U.S.] currency,” that “this constitutes a serious impediment to independence in everyday living,” and that “electronic means of bill identification will always be more fallible than purely tactile means.” Representative Baker expressly thanked the Federation for their participation in his remarks on the House floor, commenting that “I also want to express my appreciation to the … National Federation of the Blind for their technical assistance in drafting this proposal.”
In 2002, after ACB had filed its lawsuit, NFB passed a resolution expressing concern about the “adverse publicity” that the suit could create by portraying blind people as unable to handle money in its current form. Because of this concern, NFB stated its intention to oppose the lawsuit and counter any negative publicity arising from it. Also in that resolution, the Federation reversed its earlier position about the inferiority of electronic bill-reading devices, as embodied in the 1997 House Resolution (H.Res. 122) that the Federation had helped to draft, stating: “to the extent that currency identification is truly a problem for individual blind people, various technological devices capable of identifying banknotes and audibly announcing their denomination are available for sale, and in fact giving every blind person in the country such a device would be simpler and cheaper than re-engineering the nation’s cash-handling capacity.”
NFB repeated many of these arguments in the wake of Judge Robertson’s ruling, adding in a November 29 press release that the decision had placed “a roadblock in the way of solving the real problem, which is the seventy percent unemployment rate among working-age blind Americans.”
OurMoneyToo agrees with the National Federation of the Blind that blind people are, in fact, facing discrimination in many critical areas of life—chief among them being access to jobs. We strongly disagree, however, about the effect that adding tactile features to U.S. paper currency would have on this unemployment crisis. We believe that allowing blind people to identify currency denominations accurately, safely, quickly and independently will create more employment opportunities for blind individuals—especially for young people who seek employment in the retail sector, which is the route through which many people enter the workforce for the first time. Simply put, OurMoneyToo does not believe that blind people need to choose between being able to find work and independently identifying paper currency; to the contrary, we see these two important goals as reinforcing and supporting one another.
It is also interesting to us that as recently as 1997, the Federation participated in the drafting of a Congressional resolution that stated that “electronic means of bill identification will always be more fallible than purely tactile means.” The inconsistency between the language that the Federation helped bring before Congress and the language their membership adopted in 2002 is striking. One possible reason for this change is that for the past few years NFB has been developing, and in the last year has begun selling (mostly to state and local government agencies for approximately $3,500), a portable electronic reading machine that is capable of identifying currency.
With regard to NFB’s argument that the ACB lawsuit fosters negative portrayals of blind people by suggesting that they cannot independently handle their money, OurMoneyToo’s response is that it is the status quo of America’s inaccessible currency design, rather than the ACB’s and our efforts to improve that design, that hinders blind people’s independence and may consequently lead to negative or patronizing attitudes. The fact is that whatever systems blind people use to organize their money once it has been identified for them, they must still rely on a sighted person or an electronic bill reader to tell them which bills are which when receiving change or otherwise acquiring cash for the first time. By claiming that there is nothing wrong with this status quo, in effect, by condoning a system that makes blind people dependant on sighted people and/or machines, the Federation is, itself, promoting a system of inequality and dependence that tells sighted people that blind people can not—without assistance—do something as fundamental as identify currency. When sighted people are asked to identify currency for a blind person or when a sighted person watches a blind person struggle to get an electronic bill-reading machine to work, how can they help but see blindness as a disability that is difficult to live with and challenging to work around? How much better would it be for public perceptions of blindness if visually impaired and blind people could identify and file away the change they receive as quickly and effortlessly as sighted people do now?
Finally, it is important to note that while NFB touts itself as the “voice of the nations blind,” it actually comprises no more than 2% of the population of blind and visually impaired people in America, even if the statistics are interpreted generously. (The Federation reports its membership at somewhere over 50,000, whereas the population of Americans that are blind or visually impaired has been estimated at anywhere from 3.4 million to as many as 14 million people depending on how visual impairment is calculated.) No single organization, regardless of its views on this or any other issue, can responsibly claim to speak for the diverse cross section of Americans who are blind or visually impaired.
We think that the arguments in favor of adding tactile features to paper currency in the United States speak for themselves and are simply much more compelling than NFB’s objections. We also believe, however, that in evaluating those objections, the fact that NFB is alone among blindness groups in opposing the movement for tactilely discernible currency should diminish the weight given to their views.