Judge: Make Money Recognizable to Blind
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 9:37 AM
WASHINGTON -- Give blind people a way to tell a $20 bill from a single, says a judge who told the government to change the nation's paper money so it doesn't all feel the same.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson on Tuesday ordered the Treasury Department to start working on the problem, leaving it up to government officials to determine the best solution. Possible changes include making bills of differing sizes or adding embossed dots or raised ink.
The government has 10 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling. The Treasury Department had no immediate comment.
Robertson said U.S. paper money violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs. The opinion came after a four-year legal fight.
Electronic devices are available to help blind people differentiate between bills, but many complain that they are slow, expensive and unreliable. Visually impaired shoppers frequently rely on store clerks to help them.
"It's just frankly unfair that blind people should have to rely on the good faith of people they have never met in knowing whether they've been given the correct change," said Jeffrey A. Lovitky, attorney for the blind plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Some have developed other ways to cope. Melanie Brunson, a member of the American Council of the Blind, told the court that she folds her bills into different shapes: $1 bills stay straight, $5 bills are folded in half left to right, $10 bills in half top to bottom and $20 in quarters.
Government attorneys argued that forcing the Treasury Department to change the size of the bills or add texture would make it harder to prevent counterfeiting. Robertson was not swayed.
"Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations," Robertson wrote. "More than 100 of the other issuers vary their bills in size according to denomination, and every other issuer includes at least some features that help the visually impaired."
U.S. bills have not always been the same size. In 1929, the government standardized the size and shrank all bills by about 30 percent to lower manufacturing costs and help distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes.
Since then, the Treasury Department has worked to stay ahead of counterfeiters. Security threads and microprinting were introduced in 1990. The portraits were enlarged in 1996, and an infrared feature was added to encourage the development of electronic readers for the blind.
The latest redesign is under way. New $10 bills, featuring splashes of orange, yellow and red, hit the market this year, following similar changes to the $20 bill and the $50 bill. The $5 facelift is due in 2008.
In court documents, government attorneys said changing the way money feels would be expensive. Cost estimates ranged from $75 million in equipment upgrades and $9 million annual expenses for punching holes in bills to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million annual expenses for printing bills of varying sizes.
The Treasury Department spent $4.2 billion on printing over the past decade, Robertson said. Adding a raised number to the bills would have increased costs less than 5 percent over that period, the judge said.