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The buck should stop here—A Commentary by Cyrus Habib ’09

The following commentary was published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on May 26, 2008.

The buck should stop here
By Cyrus Habib ’09

Each time I pay cash for a cab or a cup of coffee, I'm hoping the person I'm paying isn't about to rip me off. The good news is that now, thanks to last week's decision by a federal appeals court, I and other blind Americans may finally have the opportunity to use money independently.

The court held, in a 2-to-1 decision affirming a lower court ruling, that the Treasury Department discriminates against the blind by failing to make dollar bills distinct enough for us to tell one denomination from another. Unless this opinion is reviewed and reversed by the Supreme Court, the Treasury will have to make the greenback accessible, either by creating differently sized bills or by introducing tactile markings.

While the media have couched this issue in traditional liberal vs. conservative terms, those of us who advocate this cause see it differently. For us, it is about the right of all Americans to seek and maintain employment, and that's something that all of us, irrespective of party affiliation or political ideology, should defend.

From the lemonade stand to the student store to the cash register at the local Dunkin' Donuts, most Americans are first introduced to our labor economy in a context that requires them to exchange, verify and count currency. By foreclosing the opportunity for blind Americans to gain needed experience in entry-level jobs, our government has contributed to the culture of dependency that permeates the blind community.

More than 70 percent of America's blind population remains unemployed today, a statistic that has barely improved since the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act 18 years ago. It is in our common interest to open the door to employment for those individuals, so that today's blind teenagers can look forward to cashing paychecks rather than Social Security.

Last year, I had the chance to meet with students from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Maine. Students there told me that many of the entry-level jobs for which they might otherwise be eligible -- cashiers, wait staff -- are off-limits to them; they know they won't be hired. "I want to get a job behind a cash register, but I know that it is just not humanly possible right now, even though I'm really good at math," said one 19-year-old girl.

Those and other episodes paint a grim picture: Young and motivated Americans are being denied access to that all-important first job, without which they may never gain financial independence. This should bother us all, whether we're concerned with social justice or economic efficiency.

Even as Treasury argues that changing U.S. currency would be too costly, an assertion the court rejected in this week's ruling, it continues to spend taxpayer money fighting the blind in court. Despite the fact that nearly all other countries around the world have produced accessible currency, the Bush administration insists on appealing judicial decisions that would give me and my fellow blind Americans the same independence enjoyed by our peers on five continents. Instead of pursuing such costly litigation, they should abide by the opinion of the court, and propose plans to modify the greenback so that we all can enjoy our most basic economic right, the freedom to earn a living.

Cyrus Habib, a Rhodes scholar, wrote an amicus brief in this case with the dean of Yale Law School Harold Koh.