Don't Alter Money for The Blind

Sunday, March 4, 2007

AU.S. District Court judge recently ruled that U.S. paper currency discriminates against the blind because bills are all the same size and cannot be distinguished by touch. As a blind professional who has advocated for the rights of people with disabilities throughout my career, I disagree with this ruling and the fallacies it perpetuates.

The ruling dilutes the definition of discrimination to the viscosity of inconvenience and reinforces a commonly held, incorrect paradigm that sight is needed to handle routine aspects of day-to-day life -- thus making it harder for the blind to be perceived as being fully capable of independence.

The ruling weakens the common societal standard used to determine whether discrimination occurred: A person or group is barred from participating in a benefit, good or service. No merchant has ever refused to take my money or return my change because I am blind -- giving me ample opportunity to shop at Towson Town Center Mall, to take my kids to the National Aquarium, to buy too many Berger cookies at Lexington Market and generally to participate in Maryland's economy.

I acknowledge that for some (especially those who have recently lost their vision) handling money can be inconvenient or even overwhelming at first. However, with a few easy-to-learn techniques (such as folding each denomination differently or using a hand-held optical-scanning money reader), a blind person can use money as anyone else does.

By labeling what may be an inconvenience to some as discrimination, the judge has set forth a false impression of the real challenges and barriers blind people face. With an estimated 70 percent unemployment rate, persistent underemployment and a lack of access to crucial workplace and public technologies, most blind people struggle with having enough money to meet their basic needs -- not with using it.

As a blind person, do I think it would it be nice if we had some tactile indicators on our money? Of course I do. I just believe that the enormous expense of trying to incorporate such elements far outweighs any possible benefits.

In short, converting our paper money to a tactile system would cost the government and private sector millions of dollars -- money that would be better spent on tackling the more relevant challenges blind people face.

Of equal concern are the misconceptions about blindness that this ruling reinforces. At the heart of this issue is the belief that sight is required to use printed materials and to perform routine tasks. This assumption is proved incorrect by the thousands of blind individuals who use Braille; text-to-speech technology; readers; digital text; and, most important, good old-fashioned creative problem-solving on a daily basis to work, play, raise families, go to school and participate in their communities.

With the right training and opportunity, blind people can do just about anything -- although they may sometimes do it differently. Misinformation that engenders low expectations of what blind people can truly achieve is far and away more insipid and harmful than the alleged discrimination cited in the court's ruling.

In short, the interests of the blind as well as those of other minorities are best served when a clear line is drawn between being inconvenienced and being discriminated against. When the line is blurred, the blind and other minorities stand to lose what we are ultimately fighting for -- respect, an equal voice, independence and economic self-


-- Kristen Cox


The writer, a former state secretary of disabilities, was a candidate for lieutenant governor of Maryland last year.

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