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Cash Is in the Eye of the Beholder

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · December 20th, 2006 · In My View
It's a question that I have been asked thousands of times: "How does a blind person identify money?"

Unless a person has enough residual vision to identify money by sight, the only way blind people can identify money is to develop a workable system for memorization.

Blind people are all different, so there are lots of systems out there. You can fold the bills in various ways -- $5s in half horizontally, say, $10s in half vertically, $20s folded into fourths, etc. Or you can put bills in different compartments of your wallet or purse -- $20s in the back, $5s in the front, $50s tucked into a secret compartment.

Or, as we all learned that Ray Charles once did (at least according to the Jamie Foxx portrayal in the movie Ray), you could demand that all cash entering your possession be only in singles. As was also demonstrated in that movie, however, this latter method gets tedious in a jiffy.

The truth is I've used all of the above methods at one time or another and all of them in combination. The other truth is I'm not very patient and not very meticulous in this particular area, so it's not uncommon for me to pull a wad of bills from the pocket of a jacket or pair of jeans that I wore more than 24 hours ago and proceed to ask someone to sort them out for me.

It's annoying, this business of all paper currency feeling the same, and while it's not at the top of my personal concerns list, I will say that when I went to Mexico last year the issue gained momentum for me. Mexican money, I was quick to notice, is different sizes and textures. Handling it and knowing by touch how much money was in my pocket was empowering. I thought about how so many countries have currency that is easily differentiated by color, texture, size and so on.

Like so many products and techniques that were originally intended to assist people with disabilities -- curb cuts for wheelchairs, closed captions for the deaf, talking books for people with visual or learning disabilities -- being able to identify bills without sight and/or good lighting would benefit everyone.

So I wondered, not for the first time, why a country (ours) that perceives itself as so cutting-edge can't pick up on such a simple idea.

Just a few weeks ago a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Treasury should do just that.

The American Council of the Blind, one of two large membership organizations committed to claiming civil rights and a place of equality for blind Americans, filed the suit against the treasury four years ago. The judge has ruled that it is indeed discrimination to keep making currency that can only be distinguished visually.

But there's more to the story. Immediately, the decision was under fire. Government officials aren't the only ones less than thrilled with the idea.

The National Federation of the Blind, the older of the two blindness organizations, issued a statement a day or two after the court decision saying the prohibitive cost involved in making the change -- designing and minting the currency, retrofitting vending and ticket machines to accept the new bills and probably a hundred other things no one has thought of -- was a low priority. It's more important, said the National Federation of the Blind, to give people jobs, an opportunity to earn cash, than to modify the whole currency system to accommodate their handling of it.

There are portable devices that can identify bills for blind people, and it would be easier to give everyone such a device than to change the entire currency system for everyone, according to the federation. Of course, not everyone can afford the $400-$500 price of these gadgets, but providing them to every person unable to identify bills visually would probably cost a fraction of what it would take to reconfigure the whole currency system.

Representatives debating both points of view have been seen on Good Morning America, CNN and a host of print media outlets along the way.

Both positions have merit. Certainly, having a job to earn money is more important than having the money be a certain color, size or shape. But what bothers me most is something else altogether: That is, what is wrong with this country that we can't just look around the world and see a thing that is so logical -- helpful to everyone in the way that all universal design is helpful to everyone -- and just do it? Why did anyone have to waste time and money on a lawsuit or opposing that lawsuit in the first place?

If all of Europe and a host of other countries can recognize that having currency that can be distinguished by touch as well as sight is more convenient for all its citizens, why do we have to have a lawsuit?

That said, I'm not going to be losing sleep over the outcome of this particular struggle. I can fold it or separate it into compartments or ask someone to identify it for me. If I think about it before leaving the office, I can even put it on the scanner and have my computer read it for me.

One thing I know for sure: I'm happy to earn and spend my cash -- whatever color, shape and size it is.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)citybeat.com


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