Should US bills be 'blind friendly'?

A federal judge ruled that the Treasury should change paper currency to make denominations easily identifiable by the blind.

Jerry Berrier is a serious bird guy. In 35 years of birding, Mr. Berrier has clocked countless hours trolling the outdoors, listening for the faintest of hums. At his home in Shrewsbury, Mass., he even hooked his computer speakers to microphones in the backyard so he can record the songs of visiting birds. (He uploads these to his website, www.birdblind.org.)

Today, Berrier can identify 35 to 40 birds by their song. But if you put a few crisp bills in his hand, he couldn't tell a $1 bill from a $20 bill. That's because Berrier is blind, and US bills are all the same size and texture.

But paper money could get a makeover that would help people like Berrier. Last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Treasury Department had to consider changing paper currency so denominations could be easily identified by the blind. Current bill design amounts to discrimination, the judge wrote.

Surprisingly, the ruling was not universally embraced by the more than 10 million blind and visually impaired people in America. While few deny that having differentiated bills would make life easier, some say the lawsuit sends a message that the blind are helpless. Opponents also say it detracts from other problems blind people face, such as unemployment and lack of Internet access.

The United States is alone among more than 180 countries in having paper currency that is identical in size and color, the judge wrote. Potential changes to the currency include embossing, punching holes, notching, or making the bills different sizes. The Treasury, which has until the end of this week to appeal the decision, has argued that any change would be costly – estimates range from $75 million for equipment and $9 million in annual expenses to punch holes to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million in annual expenses to print different-size bills.

Berrier calls the ruling "one of the biggest steps forward taken for people who are blind." He remembers accidentally giving a pizza delivery man a $20 tip instead of a $1. (The man told him about the mistake.) When he receives change, Berrier usually stuffs it all in his pocket. At home, his wife identifies bills for him.

Berrier, like many blind people, then uses a folding system, because machines that read denominations aloud are unreliable and expensive ($300). He does not fold $1 bills; he folds fives in half lengthwise, tens in half widthwise, and the twenties twice.

Fellow Massachusetts resident David Ticchi, who uses a different folding system, is not against bills of different sizes. But he's concerned the lawsuit sends a message that blind people can't handle currency – an impression he says might hurt blind job seekers by raising employers' concerns about accommodation costs. "Our problem is earning money, not identifying it," Mr. Ticchi says.

Ticchi, a teacher and special assistant to the president of a large Boston-based seafood restaurant chain, says he is proactive about handling money. When he recently bought $27.45 worth of groceries, he told the cashier: "Out of $50. That's $22.55 coming back." Announcing the bill and the change shows competence, he says.

"The blind are portrayed as either superhuman or subhuman," Ticchi says. "But we're neither. We're people."

Ticchi and Berrier's difference of opinion reflects that of two major advocacy organizations. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) views blindness as a physical characteristic, one of many that differentiates people, says James Gashel, NFB's executive director for strategic initiatives. Members say people who are blind should take responsibility for their lives and not rely on the government.

The American Council of the Blind (ACB), which filed the currency lawsuit, says the blind are capable of more than they think, but that more resources are needed to train everyone to become an "elite blind person," says Executive Director Melanie Brunson. To ACB, blindness often requires accommodation.

Despite their differences, the organizations are not locked in an escalating feud. Late last week, with the currency issue as a backdrop, leaders from NFB and ACB discussed projects to improve access to school materials for blind children. They decided not to raise the currency dispute.

"Both organizations have done a lot," says Alison Roberts who represents Our Money Too, a small advocacy group that supports identifiable currency. Ms. Roberts says the disagreement is not what people should focus on, because no organization can speak for everybody. Changing currency, she says, could be a step toward addressing other problems that affect the blind, "an invisible minority."

These issues include high unemployment (more than 55 percent for blind and visually impaired persons, according to the independent American Foundation for the Blind), improving Braille education and access to textbooks for students, and making sure research or commercial websites don't exclude the blind. NFB recently sued Target because the blind couldn't shop on the retailer's website.

Paul Schroeder, a vice president with the American Foundation for the Blind, says his group welcomes the currency ruling, but jokes that he wouldn't mind if the blind got more attention without a lawsuit. He says it's hard to prioritize goals when the blind community is so diverse and the problems so varied. Differentiating American currency is probably among the ones they all share, he says.

"We all try to believe we reflect the interests of a broader group," Schroeder says, referring to the NFB and ACB, whose combined membership is only 1 percent of the blind population. But, he adds, the disagreement stirs a healthy debate around a crucial question: How much should we push society to change, and how much should individuals learn to adapt?

For more information

To get more details on how various organizations for and of the blind regard the lawsuit and the issue about American currency, you can read:

•The press release of the American Council of the Blind saluting the decision.

•A reaction from National Federation of the Blind.

•A message from the American Foundation for the Blind.

•Views on changing currency: www.ourmoneytoo.org.

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