by Melanie Brunson
As many readers of "The Braille Forum" may remember, ACB filed suit against the United States Treasury Department several years ago based on our contention that the Treasury Department's failure to design and issue paper currency that can be readily identifiable without vision is a violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. We argued that by virtue of the fact that people who are blind have no way of determining the denomination of bank notes without resorting to assistance from either sighted individuals or expensive technology, the government has effectively denied blind people meaningful access to its paper currency. In 2006, the district court agreed with ACB, but the government appealed this decision, claiming that because blind people have developed mechanisms for coping with this problem, and can avoid using paper currency if they use credit cards, there is no denial of access under the law. On May 20, 2008, ACB learned that the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had announced its decision. In essence, the court affirmed the decision of the district court, which had found the government in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Judge Judith Rogers, writing for the majority, said that the council had demonstrated both the denial of meaningful access and the availability of accommodations that are reasonable and efficacious, and that the Secretary of the Treasury had not demonstrated that implementation of such accommodation would involve an undue burden. The following are some excerpts from the opinion issued by Rogers, writing for the court's majority. "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. Such dependence is anathema to the stated purpose of the Rehabilitation Act, and places the visually impaired at a distinct disadvantage in two-way transactions involving paper currency because they can neither control the actions of those with whom they deal nor independently discern whether the paper currency they receive is correct. Instead they are compelled to rely on the honesty and carefulness of sighted individuals who often are on the opposite side of a financial transaction. Further, credit cards do not provide an adequate substitute because they have not replaced cash in many daily transactions and may pose challenges similar to those posed by paper currency if the visually impaired cannot verify the charged amounts stated in the receipts. The availability of credit cards also does not overcome obstacles for the visually impaired in securing certain employment opportunities, such as various entry-level jobs. Moreover, the courts have recognized that the mere ability of the disabled to spend substantial sums of money to overcome obstacles attendant to a government benefit or program does not eliminate a denial of meaningful access under Section 504."
The court also noted that the estimates submitted by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving for the cost of providing the requested accommodations appear to be inflated. For one thing, though the secretary suggested that the accommodations identified by ACB could require modifications that would result in the need for more frequent replacement of paper currency, which would increase the cost of currency production, both the district court and the appellate court judges noted the absence of "statistically significant evidence" from the secretary on reduction in life span of bank notes.
Finally, the court says, " because other currency systems accommodate the needs of the visually impaired, the secretary's burden in demonstrating that implementing an accommodation would be unduly burdensome is particularly heavy. The secretary has not explained why U.S. paper currency is so different or the situation of the Bureau so unique that the costs associated with identified accommodations would constitute an undue burden." Rogers noted that the secretary did not challenge the district court's findings that the bureau's cost estimates for the design modifications identified in ACB's complaint would constitute a small fraction of the Bureau's annual expenditures, and that these costs could be even further reduced were new features incorporated into redesigns planned for other purposes, such as to address counterfeiting.
ACB is very pleased with this decision. We recognize that there is still a ways to go before we can expect to see appropriate changes to U.S. bank notes. The government has the option of further appeals, and it is unclear at the time of this writing whether they will exercise that option. However, as ACB president Mitch Pomerantz said in a press release issued shortly after the court's decision, "This is a tremendous victory for the ACB and for every blind and visually impaired person living in the United States today and in the future. We hope that the Treasury Department will now sit down with us to come up with a mutually satisfactory way of making our currency accessible."
We will keep readers informed as this issue develops, so look for more articles on this subject in future issues. We will also include updates on the Washington Connection and keep affiliate presidents informed on future developments as they occur.