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Show Us The Money—A Commentary by Cyrus Habib ’09

The following article was published in the Washington Post on January 18, 2007.
Show Us The Money
America's Paper Currency Shortchanges the Blind

By Cyrus Habib

Blind Americans may soon find themselves able to use money just like anyone else. That is unless the Treasury Department is successful this month in its appeal of a recent federal court order that paper currency be made recognizable to the blind, who are currently unable to distinguish one denomination from another.

I, for example, rely on the generosity of cab drivers, baristas and store clerks each time I make a purchase with cash. That I have rarely been ripped off is a testament to their honesty or my charm, but I cannot help but protest the perpetual necessity for either. After all, there are 180 countries in which this is not the case, because their currency is designed to be distinguishable by all.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson asked the Treasury Department to determine the best means of making money distinguishable by the blind, citing the myriad solutions proposed by the organization that filed the lawsuit, the American Council of the Blind. These included using raised ink, modifying the size of certain bills and producing a tactile mark to indicate a bill's denomination. The Treasury Department has objected to all such solutions, claiming that the $75 million price tag is simply too high.

Of course, Treasury's lawyers fail to mention that the cost would have been far lower had the department acted voluntarily when the $20 bill was redesigned in 1998 and the $10 bill was modified last year. Instead, it has decided to spend our tax money fighting the blind in court, appealing Judge Robertson's decision even before a final judgment on the nature of a solution could be reached.

Blind people in the United States suffer from a staggering 70 percent unemployment rate, and a disproportionately high percentage of those who are employed occupy jobs in the low end of the service sector. There is no question that the catastrophic poverty of America's blind requires a solution. Why not begin by giving us access to money at the most atomic level? How can blind Americans become truly independent, achieving the success we deserve and leaving behind the stigma of federal and state aid, without being able to differentiate between a dollar bill and a fifty?

The Treasury Department suggests using debit and credit cards, disregarding the fact that the lives of many blind Americans hinge upon financial exchanges for which plastic is often useless, such as catching a crosstown bus, purchasing a cup of coffee or getting change for laundry.

These basic day-to-day experiences may not constitute reality for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his team, but they certainly do for millions of blind and low-vision Americans.

Some have called the lawsuit frivolous, arguing that blind people have managed to survive for years by relying on others for help. Such reasoning does more than ignore the overwhelming poverty and hardship that plague the blind community; it dishonors the sacrifices millions of disabled Americans made to help bring about passage of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act. Money is essential to a person's participation in society. Its accessibility to blind people should be considered as important as that of wheelchair ramps or Braille in elevators.

When it comes to accommodating disabilities such as blindness, let us continue to lead the world in practice as well as in principle. More important still, let us tell the world that we, too, believe that blindness should not be an obstacle to financial independence. In doing so, let us also take a significant step toward ameliorating the living conditions of blind Americans, now and for years to come.

The Treasury Department should obey Judge Robertson's order and show us the money.

The writer, a Rhodes Scholar and JD candidate at Yale Law School, is preparing an amicus brief on this case with Dean Harold Hongju Koh.