Blind Discrimination: Paper Money Feels the Same

Yesterday, in a watershed moment in the history of the disabled, U.S. District Judge James Robertston finally instructed the United States Treasury to find a way for the Blind to discriminate between paper money denominations.


It is difficult to understand why it has taken so long for this mandatory change in paper money to finally be enforced by the Judiciary.

“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.”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…. He said the government was violating the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs. The opinion came after a four-year legal fight.

Janna and I have spend the last 18 years of our lives working with the Deaf and Deaf-Blind and there has always been an ongoing and difficult negotiation of trust when it comes to the Blind and their money. Too often “friends” and “staff” and store workers “help” the Blind by stealing their money and shorting them when allowances are handed out, ATM withdrawals are made, or when change is given.

If a Blind person hands you a $20 bill and you give them change for a $5 bill and pocket the $15 difference, what is the Blind person going to do? Accuse you of stealing? Tell you a mistake was made? If you help a Blind person withdraw $20 from an ATM but you really withdraw $60 and pocket the $40, how will the Blind person know of your deceit until it is too late to do anything about it? It is nearly impossible for a Blind person in the field to recognize paper money denominations so it is only later, after they return home to count their money, that they discover they have been ripped off and by that time all they can do is get angry.

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 plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Others have developed ways to cope with the similarly shaped bills. 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.

The Blind we worked with preferred to staple their money for identification because it was more permanent and more reliable than folding and less destructive than punching holes. A dollar bill had no staple. $5 had a single staple in one corner. $10 had two staples. $20 had three.

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. 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.

Paper money is always changing to thwart counterfeiters so why not make some of those methods friendly to the Blind? If texture differences and varying sizes and unique bubble markings were added to each denomination, then all the bills become harder to fake. The U.S. Treasury should embrace this ruling by Judge Robertson and make our paper money safer and friendlier to the disabled so the Blind no longer have to rely on the cruelty of strangers and friends for stealing their money.