By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a lower court's ruling that the U.S. currency system discriminates against blind people because bills of different denominations are the same size, shape and color and cannot be easily distinguished by the visually impaired.
In a 2 to 1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the existing currency system violates the federal Rehabilitation Act. The judges said that the Treasury Department must find a way to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired.
Some leading advocacy groups, including the National Federation for the Blind, have strongly opposed the 2002 lawsuit that led to today's ruling, saying that most blind people have found ways to cope with the challenges presented by paper currency. They argue that there are other, more pressing needs to be addressed.
That position echoes some of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.'s testimony to the appeals court last year. Paulson said the blind can function adequately using credit cards or electronic scanners that identify different bills, and by relying on help from others.
But the majority opinion by Judge Judith W. Rogers, released yesterday, sharply disputed that view. "The Secretary's argument is analogous to contending that merely because the mobility impaired may be able either to rely on the assistance of strangers or to crawl on all fours in navigating architectural obstacles . . . they are not denied meaningful access to public buildings," Rogers wrote.
In finding for the American Council of the Blind, which first brought the lawsuit in 2002, the court said Treasury did not prove that changing the currency system would unduly burden the federal government. Instead, it found that altering the size or shape of bills would not cost substantially more than other changes the government made in 1996 and 2004 to deter counterfeiting -- and that the cost would have been mitigated if the government had included accommodations for the visually impaired at those times.
In the original lawsuit, visually impaired citizens testified about having to rely on others to tell them if they were paying with or receiving the wrong bills.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith concurred with Rogers in upholding the 2006 decision by U.S. District Judge James Robertson, while Judge A. Raymond Randolph dissented. Randolph wrote that because the district court had not ordered a specific remedy when it ruled for the plaintiffs, it was impossible for the appeals court to determine whether the government's eventual solution would pose an undue burden.
In his 2006 ruling, Robertson said the government must make changes to its bills but said it could decide what those changes would be. He also said that of more than 170 countries that print paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color regardless of denomination.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman said that the government has hired a research firm to explore ways to help people with poor vision, the results of which will be available next year.
The Council of the Blind has suggested distinguishing bills of different amounts by changing their size, adding embossed dots or foil to the paper or using raised ink.
The government has said such changes would be costly -- at least $4.5 million to dramatically increase the size of numerals on bills so they can be read by people with poor vision, and more than $200 million to create bills of different sizes. The changes also could interfere with anti-counterfeiting efforts.
Yesterday's appellate decision sent the case back to district court to consider the plaintiff's request for injunctive relief. The federal government must decide whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.