Money for the Visually Impaired:

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a district court opinion finding 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." Judge Judith Rogers wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by Judge Thomas Griffith. Judge Raymond Randolph dissented.

The divided ruling in American Council of the Blind v. Paulson held that the failure to design currency more readily usable by the visually impaired denies them "meaningful access" to this government program.

The current design of paper money springs from the world of the sighted. 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. (citation omitted)
That the blind and other visually impaired often develop "coping mechanisms" does not mean they lack "meaningful access" to the use of U.S. currency.

The Treasury Department defended its failure to accommodate the visually impaired by arguing that adopting such currency designs would impose an "undue burden," but the court wasn't buying it. According to Judge Rogers' majority opinion, "section 504 requires only that the least burdensome accommodation not be unduly burdensome," and the government failed "to demonstrate that all accommodations found by the district court to be facially reasonable would pose an undue burden." The court also concluded that the impact on third parties of a redesign of U.S. currency, such as by changing the sizes of various bills, was not relevant to determining whether complying with section 504 would impose an "undue burden." This is certainly unwelcome news for the vending machine industry, one of the groups that filed a brief in support of the government.

In dissent, Judge Randolph argued both that the court should have dismissed the case as an improper interlocutory appeal, and that it was wrong to uphold the district court's grant of summary judgment without finding that there was an "effective accomodation the government implement without imposing an 'undue burden' on itself or the private sector." Many potential currency modifications that would help the visually impaired are impractical or unreliable, and those that remain may be unduly expensive. Thus, Judge Randolph argued, the majority had "not identified a single accomodation that is undisputedly 'reasonable effective, and feasible,' and for which there is no material issue about an undue burden."

This decision is potentially quite significant. Among other things, it could result in the redesign of all bills larger than $1. The decision was also not uniformly supported by advocates for the blind and visually impaired. While the American Council of the Blind initiated the suit against the Treasury Department, the National Federation of the Blind supported the government's position.

One interesting bit of the opinion is footnote 16, which discusses the nature of currency as a universal medium, and cites Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a committee report of the Continental Congress, and Montesquieu. Also interesting, and somewhat ironic, as Howard Bashman notes, the opinion itself is no more friendly to the visually impaired than U.S. currency.