Friday, May 23, 2008

D.C. Circuit: Paper money discriminates against the blind

The Second Circuit is not the only Court of Appeals in the federal system. There is also the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the absence of any civil rights rulings from the Second Circuit lately, we look to the D.C. Circuit today for anything interesting. The D.C. Circuit has not let us down. On May 20, 2008, it ruled that U.S. paper money discriminates against the blind.

The case is American Council of the Blind v. Paulson. The case interprets Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects against disability discrimination in government programs that receive federal money. For most of us, spending paper money involves taking it from our wallets or purses and giving it to the guy behind the counter. But shut your eyes and figure out if that bill is a $5 bill or a $20 bill. That's what it's like to be visually-impaired. So the D.C. Circuit is ordering the federal government to do something about it.

The Court notes that "The current design of paper money springs from the world of the sighted." It adds:

Upon casual inspection, anyone with good vision can readily discern the value of U.S. currency; yet even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill. The Secretary has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch. Instead, the fact that U.S. paper currency does not include features that are detectable by the visually impaired appears to have been a result of the type of “thoughtlessness and indifference” that Congress targeted under section 504. Moreover, the centrality to the Rehabilitation Act of empowering the disabled to engage in economic activity imbues the accessibility of currency with special importance. The visually impaired can hardly be “empower[ed] . . . to maximize [their] employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and inclusion and integration into society,” 29 U.S.C. § 701(b)(1), if in everyday transactions they cannot use the paper currency that they possess without the assistance of third persons. Where the basic task of independently evaluating the worth of currency in excess of 99 cents is difficult or impossible, the visually impaired are forever relegated to depend on “the kindness of strangers” to shop for groceries, hire a taxi, or buy a newspaper or cup of coffee.

This decision hits the federal government hard. The government defends itself by arguing that the blind can find ways to cope with the burden of paper money, i.e., relying on others to advise the nature of a $10 or $20 bill, using expensive computer equipment or folding their bills in a certain way to distinguish them from each other. But the Court of Appeals isn't buying any of this: "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."

The government also suggests that there is no evidence that the visually-impaired have been scammed as a result of their inability to distinguish between denominations. The Court of Appeals suggests this is "[a] somewhat astounding proposition on its face" as the government "implies that criminal victimization is a necessary predicate for the disabled to invoke the rights protected under section 504. However, section 504 “is intended to insure that qualified individuals receive services in a manner consistent with basic human dignity.”

In a disability discrimination case, the government can defend itself by arguing that accommodating the disabled will be an "undue burden." Not here, though. The government can afford to redesign paper money, and apparently suggesting that $1 bills can stay as they are, the court notes that "approximately half the paper currency that the Bureau prints in any given year are $1 bills." The government has redesigned paper currency in 1996 and 2004 to prevent counterfeiting, and it apparently squandered that opportunity to throw in some other changes to paper money that would have accommodated the disabled. Since other currency systems -- apparently abroad -- use different bill sizes or other ways to distinguish paper currency by touch, "the Secretary’s burden in demonstrating that implementing an accommodation would be unduly burdensome is particularly heavy."

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