Tuesday, May 20, 2008

D.C. Cir: U.S. Currency Discriminates Against Blind

This morning the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in The American Council of the Blind v. Paulson in which it held that U.S. currency discriminates against the visually impaired in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. s 794.  Here is the full opinion.  CNN has a short piece on the opinion here and Time has one here.  Here's the court's introduction.

The Secretary of the Treasury appeals the declaratory judgment that the Treasury Department’s failure to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to the visually impaired violates section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The Secretary contends that various coping mechanisms that enable the visually impaired to use U.S. currency, as well as the availability of portable currency readers to identify denominations and credit cards as an alternative to cash, demonstrate that there is no denial of meaningful access to currency. Consequently, the Secretary maintains that the district court erred in finding to the contrary and should not have reached the question of whether identified accommodations would impose an undue burden.  Alternatively, assuming a denial of meaningful access, the Secretary contends that the district court erred in validating identified accommodations in view of their added costs and the burden on the public.

As we all know, the Treasury has been issuing redesigned currency for the last several years.  The plaintiff's point seems to be that, if the Treasury is going to redesign the currency, it should do so in a way that allows the visually impaired to distinguish the denominations.  Here are some interesting facts the court cites about other foreign currencies. 

Of the 171 authorities issuing currency identified by the1995 NRC Report, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all denominations. Of the issuing authorities, 128 use paper currency that varies in size between some denominations, 24 use large numerals, 167 use different color schemes for each denomination, and 23 incorporate tactile features. In total, more than seventy-eight percent (78%) of authorities surveyed issued paper currency in which at least some denominations could be identified by those with no vision, either by means of tactile features or size variations. Since 1995, Canada has redesigned its currency to include embossed dots that vary by denomination, and the Euro, introduced in 2002, has incorporated a foil feature perceptible to touch.

The D.C. Court of Appeals remanded the case for a determination of whether the Plaintiffs are entitled to injunctive relief.  We don't yet know what the final result of this litigation will be, but we know what the plaintiffs want.  The district court opinion makes clear that the plaintiffs demand, inter alia, 1) a permanent injunction prohibiting the Treasury from continuing to manufacture bank notes in the present manner; 2) a permanent injunction requiring bank notes to be designed with features making them accessible to the visually impaired; and 3) a detailed corrective action plan submitted by the Treasury to the court for approval.  Independent of this litigation, the Treasury plans to redesign currency every seven to ten years.  At a minimum, it seems reasonable on the next go-round to design the currency in such a way that allows the visually impaired to distinguish the various denominations.--Counseller


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