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

AprpmSun, 29 Apr 2007 18:02:19 +00002007-04-29T18:02:19+00:0006 11, 2007

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.

California Congressman Introduces Accessible Currency Bill in House of Representatives

AprpmThu, 19 Apr 2007 23:12:08 +00002007-04-19T23:12:08+00:0011 11, 2007

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.”

The Lawsuit that Generated All the Headlines

AprpmMon, 16 Apr 2007 19:23:18 +00002007-04-16T19:23:18+00:0007 11, 2007

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.

My Experiences As a Blind Person Using Currency Abroad

AprpmWed, 04 Apr 2007 20:42:31 +00002007-04-04T20:42:31+00:0008 11, 2007

I spent six months studying in Scotland when I was in college, and during that time I also visited England, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland and Sweden. In all of those countries the denominations of paper money varied by size, and in Scotland and England, where I spent the most time, I got to know the currency so well that I could identify each bill by touch. I still folded different types of bills differently in my wallet to make it easier to keep track of them, but for the first time in my life, I could tell for myself what the bills were before folding them so I didn’t have to ask a sighted person for help.

It was so liberating not to have to ask cashiers which bills were which when they gave me change. Now that I’m back in the U.S. and I do have to ask again, it bothers me more than it ever did before.  Now I know firsthand that it doesn’t have to be this way. That is why I am doing everything I can to work for the modernization of our currency in the U.S., so it can be as easy to use for all people, both blind and sighted, as the currency I used in Europe.