The Lawsuit that Generated All the Headlines

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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.

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