The National Federation of the Blind Position and OurMoneyToo’s Response

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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.

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3 Responses to “The National Federation of the Blind Position and OurMoneyToo’s Response”

  1. Mike Gorse Says:

    A brief story: This afternoon, I went to the bakery at the end of the street and gave the proprietor what I thought was a 20 dollar bill, but he told me that it was a 1 and expressed concern that maybe I had been ripped off. I go there fairly regularly and know the owner, so I am choosing to take him at his word, but, as with the time I was told by a casheer that I gave him a $1 bill rather than a $100 bill, I don’t really know what happened. I might have mistakenly placed a $1 bill in the section of my wallet where I normally keep $20 bills at some point, although I don’t recall ever having made that mistake before.

    Anyway, this touches on the issue, deemed crucial by the NFB, of how we are perceived by the sighted public, as handing out the wrong bill is an embarrassing mistake to make, assuming that we are really handing out the wrong bill rather than being taken advantage of. One might argue that I should have been more careful and should have taken the bill out of my wallet and put it on my scanner to try to be absolutely sure that it was what I thought it was. However, such measures go far beyond what would be required of a sighted person. Focusing on an individual’s behavior may well be a good idea, but it is not an appropriate or effective way to address a systemic barrier. It would be like pairing two equally-skilled runners in a five-mile race, giving the first runner a two-minute head start, and telling the second runner that, if she loses, then she lost because she didn’t run fast enough. In the long term, we will be most helped to find employment if we can perform tasks roughly as easily and naturally as a sighted person can, so we should work towards that aim of universal design. With money, that means having bills that are tactily distinguishable like nearly every other country, not having to have a bill reader. Given that bills are regularly re-designed anyway and such a change would benefit everyone, including sighted people, and cost a tiny amount compared to what we are spending on weapons and occupying Iraq, this could hardly be considered an unreasonable stance to take.

  2. Jake Says:

    I have a very hard time coming to terms with the argument put forth by the NFB saying that implementation of accessible paper money will in fact hurt us. This is kind of like the audio description dilemma. Some people may not prefer audio description, but that doesn’t mean audio description is a bad thing and should therefore be opposed by every visually-impaired person. Just for the record, I really enjoy audio description and think it should be more widely used. I read somewhere else that the reason the NFB all of a sudden has switched their views on the currency issue, is because they weren’t the ones filing this lawsuit and their rivals were. I think this is taking the easy way out. What a bunch of cheapskates! Personal preference is what it all comes down to. If you are opposed to accessible paper currency, you just might stand a better chance of being ripped off and you might look like a total idiot standing there having a sighted person tell you what each bill is, but apparently that’s okay for some people. Not for me! That’s why I signed the petition.

  3. CandUnak Says:

    It’s amazing

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