In the latest edition of “Access World” the American Foundation for the Blind reviewed the Note Teller 2 money identifier. According to the review the machine was only able to correctly identify bills 80% of the time.
OurMoneyToo.org recently received this stirring e-mail from longtime blind civil-rights activist Carl Jarvis:
A salute to Cyrus Habib.
It’s good to know that there are fearless blind men and women openly demanding to be given First class privileges.
Equality is not something that is bestowed upon the meek.
Equal rights must be claimed. And once secured they must be defended until the end of time.
Failure to demand that we have accessible currency is a statement that we willingly accept second class status.
Failure to demand accessible currency because we are fearful of losing other hard fought privilages will actually bring that fear to pass.
Failure to vigorously oppose the Bush administration’s efforts to overturn the judge’s ruling, will send a message to our government that we lack the resolve to take our place as equal partners in America.
This is not a question of, what is the safe thing to do.
Nor is it a question of whether we will win, this time around.
This is a question of what is right.
We have the right to be treated with respect and dignity.
We know, up close and personal, the taste of second class status. It comes to us in so many little ways. Small reminders that we must be grateful for the crumbs brushed from the Master’s table. We know how it is to feel frightened, that if we resist or dare raise a whimper, we could be put out in the cold with no place to turn.
But brave men and women dare to stand up and declare their right to dignity.
Corageous people dare to say, “give us liberty or give us death!”
But of course, we’re only asking that our money be accessible to those of us who are blind.
The Boston Globe printed a great accessible currency article on April 19, focusing on the Perkins School’s official support of the friend-of-the-court brief being written by Yale Law students Cyrus Habib and Jon Finer with Professor Harold Hongju Koh.
I think this quote at the end of the Globe article says it all:
Jason Campbell, a 21-year-old Perkins student, said not being able to handle money reinforces stereotypes about blind people.
“They think blind people can’t do much,” he said. “If they don’t give you a chance, you can’t prove them wrong. And maybe they don’t want to be proven wrong.”
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.
On April 18, 2007, Representative Pete Stark, who represents California’s 13th district, introduced a bill, H.R. 1931, that would “require the production of Federal reserve notes in a manner which enables an individual who is blind to determine the denomination of each such note.”
Representative Stark has been a long-time supporter of accessible currency and has introduced several bills about the issue in the past. When introducing H.R. 1931 on the House floor on April 18, Rep. Stark said:
“I first introduced this bill in 1979 and think it is embarrassing that, more than 25 years later, blind Americans had to sue their government requesting access to their own currency. We should not delay or deny justice any longer.”
In 2006, the members of the Blinded Veterans Association voted to support adding a tactile feature to United States paper currency.
WHEREAS, currency is used by virtually everyone in everyday life including blind and visually-impaired persons, AND
WHEREAS, the currency of the United States is, at the present time, impossible to identify without vision or electric device, AND
WHEREAS, most blind and visually impaired persons are therefore required to rely upon others to determine denominations of such currency, AND
WHEREAS, this constitutes a serious impediment to independence in everyday living, AND
WHEREAS, electronic means of bill identification will always have more potential for fallibility than purely tactile means, AND
WHEREAS, readily identifiable currency is consistent with the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, AND
WHEREAS, a suitable method of visual identification has been introduced for visually-impaired persons, AND
WHEREAS, no tactile means of identifying currency has yet been developed or introduced; THEREFORE BE IT
RESOLVED, that the Blinded Veterans Association, in convention assembled in Buffalo, NY on this 19th day of August, 2006, strongly supports efforts to make
currency of the United States tactually identifiable within a reasonable period of time.
It has been suggested that blind people don’t need a change to paper currency; instead, the argument goes, they can just use credit cards to make all of their purchases. Those who embrace this line of reasoning fail to realize that many credit card machines require entering information through flat touch screens—which are inaccessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. Since the keys on a flat touch screen are not distinguishable by touch, blind and visually impaired people have many of the same accessibility problems with these machines that they have with our currency. Also, many stores do not even accept credit cards, and many of those that do require a minimum purchase for the “privilege” of using a credit card. Not to mention the number of local service providers (taxicab drivers, babysitters, landscapers, and more) who cannot accept credit cards. Of course, all of those arguments pale in comparison to the argument, “Why should blind and visually impaired people have to pay interest on their purchases simply because of their lack of eyesight?” Do those who promote the credit card solution to the currency identification challenges faced by blind and visually impaired Americans really believe that’s a fair result?
Some may respond that blind and visually impaired Americans don’t need to pay interest if they use a debit card instead of a conventional credit card. The problem with that argument is that in order to use a debit card, unlike a credit card, you must enter your personal identification number. This forces blind and visually impaired Americans, at stores with flat touch screen credit card machines, to tell their PIN number to a total stranger. Surely, no one thinks that is a good idea.
Even if blind or visually impaired people are willing to use conventional credit cards or if their debit cards can be used like credit cards, they must still sign for most purchases. For a myriad of reasons, many blind people would have difficulty signing their names. Whether it is because they need assistance finding where to sign on the inaccessible touch screen, or whether it is because they have not yet learned how to sign their names in print (either manually or using a personal hand stamp), these blind people are effectively precluded from using credit cards to make purchases.
It is true that credit cards can sometimes be more convenient than cash, but it is equally true that there are many instances where using a credit card is either not an option or far less convenient than using cash. We would never tolerate a system that required all people to charge every one of their purchases, so why is it acceptable to expect blind people to do so? If we did decide that all people needed to use credit cards, society would have to change in many ways to make their use easier. For one thing, there would be no more minimum purchase requirements for the use of credit cards. Additionally, every business and service provider would be required to accept credit cards. Even if all of those fundamental changes could be made—a proposition that is very unlikely—almost every American would oppose it, because there is no getting around the fact that for many reasons cash is simply easier to use.
Because I’m a law student (about a month away from being a law school graduate!), I’ve been tagged to write the “legal post.” I will try to keep the legalese to a minimum here though so that this information will be useful to people regardless of how much or how little legal background they have. OK, here goes:
While blind people and their allies have been talking about the inaccessibility of U.S. paper currency for many years, the event that first brought this issue to the attention of many people, and to the media, was the recent judicial ruling in a lawsuit filed by the American Council of the Blind. ACB filed the lawsuit in 2002 against the Treasury Department. The basis of the suit was that by printing bills that are identical in size and texture so that blind people (and many with low vision) have no way to tell the different denominations apart, the Treasury is violating a provision of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by federal executive agencies.
The Rehabilitation Act, which was passed by Congress in 1973, sought to ensure the equal participation of people with disabilities in the workforce and other sectors of society. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which can be found at section 794 of Title 29 of the United States Code (where all federal laws are listed), states that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States” can be “excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under … any federal program or activity conducted by any executive agency.” Because the Treasury Department is an executive agency within the federal government, and because printing currency is an activity which that agency is responsible for conducting (the bills are actually printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, but the Treasury Department has ultimate decisionmaking authority over the process), the ACB argued that the Treasury has to follow this provision of the Rehabilitation Act when it designs paper currency. The suit went on to say that because there is no way for blind and many visually impaired people to tell the bills apart independently, these people are being denied the benefits of the Treasury’s currency printing system.
This case went on for over four years in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, with the government repeatedly seeking to have it dismissed and having its motions to dismiss denied by District Judge James Robertson. On November 28, 2006, Judge Robertson ruled in ACB’s favor, stating that the Treasury Department is violating the Rehabilitation Act by the way it currently prints money, and that it needs to add some kind of feature to paper currency that will allow blind and visually impaired people to differentiate the bills independently. Judge Robertson said that he did not want to tell the Treasury which feature to use or dictate a timetable for its implementation, but he required them to come up with an action plan to explain how they would change their design process to comply with the law.
Rather than working on coming up with such an action plan, the Treasury appealed Judge Robertson’s ruling to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The government argued in its notice of appeal that changing paper currency to make the bills distinguishable by touch would be unreasonably expensive and that blind people do not need such a change anyway because they can use bill-reading machines to identify their currency or make all of their purchases with credit or debit cards.
In short, none of these arguments are convincing. (Responses to each can be found on OurMoneyToo’s website.) I agree with Judge Robertson that it is not fair to ask blind people to rely on the “kindness of strangers” or on expensive and unwieldy electronic devices to identify currency for them. All of these forms of access fall far short of the “meaningful access” that the Rehabilitation Act requires, and for something as fundamental as cash—the means of exchange that all of us must use on a daily basis—such second-class access is not acceptable. More than 100 other countries already have developed systems of currency where a blind person can pick up a bill and know right away what denomination it is; the United States should do no less. Not only is it required by a proper interpretation of the Rehabilitation Act, which has been the law of the land for over 30 years, but it is also the right thing to do.
I have owned a bill-reading machine (the Note Teller) for more than four years. While I have found using the Note Teller to be a good way to keep track of most of my paper currency, I know I am lucky. Currently, the new Note Teller 2 retails for $270—a price that may be beyond the means of many blind Americans. In fact, if I had not been given my Note Teller as a gift, I do not believe I would own it either.
During the time I have owned my Note Teller, I have had many conversations with blind friends who cannot understand why I rely so heavily on my Note Teller. Until recently, I used to answer those challenges by acknowledging that relying on the Note Teller, like every other system that blind people have to rely on, is not a perfect way of identifying money, because it cannot identify the newly redesigned bills without software upgrades and (like a vending machine) it can only read bills that are entered in the proper orientation or which are not wrinkled. However, I took pride in the fact that I wasn’t dependent on sighted people to identify most of my currency. Also, I wasn’t forced to strictly adhere to a folding system. As long as I kept my currency reasonably wrinkle-free and avoided the newer bills, I could rely on my Note Teller to distinguish the bills for me.
But three weeks ago, I discovered the biggest problem with relying on a machine as my primary source of currency identification: suddenly my Note Teller stopped working. I have tried everything from changing the battery to cleaning out the machine, and so far, I have not been able to get it working. So, I have gone back to using my own folding system and relying on sighted people for the original identification. Of course, I could send my Note Teller to the manufacturer to have the software upgraded for $85, but if that doesn’t work I will have to decide if I can really afford to $270 dollars for a new Note Teller.
Over the last few weeks, I have not missed fighting with my Note Teller—trying to get it to identify bills, not knowing if the problem is the bill being too wrinkled or too new. While I appreciate not having to put stacks of paper money under heavy objects in an attempt to flatten out the wrinkles, I still miss my Note Teller. There was something nice about being able to verify the information that a sighted person had given me or being able to identify money that I had dropped.
Until America has paper currency that is more user friendly, I will have to get used to using some combination of these less-than-perfect systems of bill identification. While I am confident that I will be able to use money to purchase what I need, I am frustrated by the fact that I am being asked to spend hundreds of dollars or to rely on the kindness of strangers just to do something as fundamental as knowing how much change I am receiving.
The most common method that those of us who are blind use to distinguish bills is to fold them differently. Different people use different techniques; there is no right or wrong way of doing it. I leave my $1’s unfolded, fold $5’s in half the short way, and fold $10’s the long way. My wallet has two sections for cash, so I put $20’s in a separate section and leave them unfolded.
Folding currency often allows us to handle cash reasonably well, but it has serious limitations. Before we can fold a bill, we need to find out its denomination by asking a sighted person or using a machine. This often means that we cannot independently verify that we are being handed the correct change for a purchase, for example. This may be somewhat less of an issue in a crowded store where others in line might notice if we are being shortchanged, but in other situations, such as in taxicabs, there may be no way to check because there may be no witnesses around when it comes time to pay.
Our currency-folding systems are also very vulnerable to tampering by other people. I once had three bills in my bureau drawer that I thought were $100’s, but I went to use two of them at different times and was told that they were $1’s. I suspect that someone who was living with me took the $100’s out of my bureau and replaced them with $1’s, since she had done other things that made me inclined to suspect that, but I cannot be sure, since it is possible that the cashier was lying to me or that someone I asked to identify the bills might have kept them and given me back $1’s in their place. One may point out that I should have immediately gone to the bank with the money rather than keeping it in my house, and in retrospect I would agree with that. Nevertheless, this story does present issues that sighted people would not have–and that I would not have either, if I could distinguish a $1 from a $100.