by Mitch Pomerantz
The inspiration for this month's column came as the result of a post to ACB-L of an article concerning a cell phone being demonstrated by a staff member of the National Federation of the Blind. This cell phone was equipped with software which would allow a blind person to use it as a currency identifier by holding the phone over the bill in question for approximately 20 seconds. The phone would then announce the denomination of the bill. Naturally, this incredible new technological advancement was bally-hooed by the Federation spokesperson as the next great step in achieving full equality with the sighted by permitting blind people to identify currency without assistance. For around $2,100 (a mere $600 for the phone itself), blind folks could add one more tool to a growing arsenal of NFB-sponsored and marketed gadgets and gizmos.
OK, let me insert a disclaimer here. I am not one of those blind people who must have the latest and greatest piece of technology as soon as it hits the market. At the mid-Atlantic convention, I was the high bidder for the Victor Reader Stream that was being auctioned. Upon being declared the winner, I immediately handed it over to Donna for her use. I'm doing just fine with a three- or four-year-old Talkman for reading on my twice- daily commute between home and office. In Donna's mind (and in the minds of many of our friends), I'm considered a dinosaur. So be it!
Having said that, I want you to imagine the following scenario: You are in line at your local supermarket or convenience store. You've just received a call from your spouse asking you to pick up a couple of items on your way home because you're having unexpected company for dinner. At the head of an ever-lengthening line of harried shoppers is someone who is obviously blind and has just received a handful of bills from the equally harried clerk. The blind individual whips out a little device which he/she holds over each bill in turn for approximately 20 seconds before carefully folding and putting it in a wallet. Consider your blood pressure and stress level rising exponentially as this process is repeated five or six times before the individual abandons his/her place at the register. How's that for promoting an image of full equality in society?
This obsession with the notion that technology will somehow foster equality with our sighted peers can be carried to absurd extremes, as in this instance. Yes, technology can make our lives easier, as it certainly has for the general public. However, technology does not typically impact negative public attitudes about blindness. To my mind, such negative attitudes are still the biggest barrier we must overcome in order to achieve that illusory ideal we call equality.
There is a far better and more rational approach to achieving this goal. Actually, it involves a two-pronged effort. The first is education, to address the myths and misconceptions surrounding blindness. The second encompasses both legislative and, when necessary, legal action in the courts to guarantee our civil rights.
The latter strategy is exemplified by ACB's championing of accessible currency. Sometime this spring, the American Council of the Blind will learn whether the D.C. Appellate Court will uphold the decision in district court which supported our contention that the U.S. Treasury Department was in violation of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide meaningful access to currency for blind and visually impaired people. I believe that the court will uphold the original decision in ACB's favor.
Those who advocate for a high-tech solution to all of our access problems ignore two fundamental truths. First, that most people who are blind or have low vision are in the lowest income brackets. It would be unthinkable to spend $2,000 on a cell phone even if they had that kind of money. For them, $2,000 represents two, three or perhaps four months' rent, not to mention food, clothing and/or medicine. Second, that the vast majority of those comprising the "blind community" joined it after the age of 60 and, as such, are far less inclined to use technology than their children and grandchildren.
The inescapable conclusion one is forced to draw from the announcement of this magical money-identifying cell phone is that it is not really intended to aid the average blind or visually impaired person. Not at all! It is aimed at the elite blind: those people who are employed in jobs which pay sufficiently well to place them in the so-called middle class or higher and are either young enough or technologically savvy enough to be comfortable with such devices.
To my way of thinking, a technological approach to identifying currency is the wrong road to travel. Yes, some of our members will undoubtedly purchase this cell phone simply because they are enamored with new technology. If you can afford it and you're into such things, great! Personally, I'd rather spend money on keeping up our home, going to a good restaurant from time to time, and traveling. As they say, "to each his [or her] own." ACB's members do not comprise an elite class of blind and visually impaired people. The organization is made up of a broad cross- section of this nation's blind: poor and well-off; high-tech oriented and technological troglodytes; older and younger, and thousands of us in- between. The American Council of the Blind -- in keeping with its broad- based membership -- will fight and win the battle for the only appropriate solution which takes all of us equally into account: fully accessible currency.