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Friday, April 18, 2014
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Published: 12/1/2006

Blind to reason

CONGRESS acknowledged government's role in helping the disabled maximize their independence and integration into society with passage of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

But while government can - and should - promote inclusiveness for those with disabilities and fight discriminatory programs, it cannot be all things to all people.

A federal judge failed to grasp that concept when he recently ordered the U.S. Treasury to change American currency, alleging it discriminates against the blind. The conclusion of a four-year legal fight was well-intentioned but wrong.

It is a hardship for those with serious visual challenges or no sight at all to distinguish between the various denominations in U.S. paper money. The bills are all identical in size and nearly so in color.

The visually impaired are often forced to rely on the good faith of strangers when conducting business transactions. Certainly they are vulnerable to the unscrupulous who would take advantage of their impairment when handling money.

But U.S. District Judge James Robertson was sympathetic to a fault. If the disabled cannot accurately identify paper money without assistance, Judge Robertson wrote, "it can no longer be successfully argued that a blind person has 'meaningful access' to currency."

Therefore, said the judge, the U.S. government is guilty of discriminating against the blind in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and must make restitution. He ordered the government to come up with a way for the blind to tell the bills apart.

The judge offered no suggestions on how to fix the problem, but the American Council of the Blind proposed several changes to U.S. currency, including different sized denominations, embossed dots, and raised printing.

Besides the expense of those changes, estimated at $75 million to $178 million for one-time changes and roughly $50 million annually to print bills of varying sizes, there are other problems with the judge's over-reaching order.

Government attorneys argued the changes could make U.S. currency more susceptible to counterfeiting and could undermine international acceptance of the U.S. dollar. But they could easily have made another argument about a solution in search of a crisis.

The practical drawbacks to dramatically changing the way money feels with new design and distribution outweigh the difficulties of some visually impaired in differentiating between bills.

Many blind individuals have already instituted their own system of telling bills apart with folded corners and such. Electronic devices, while not ideal, are also available to help the blind differentiate currency.

There's no question the burden on the blind is unfortunate and unfair. But the problem, however vexing, is not reason enough to change the face, shape, and size of American currency.



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