The Scientific Activist

Some Money for the Blind?

Being able to see is so fundamental to the daily activities of the vast majority of us that we rarely give it a second thought. Take away that ability to see, though, and suddenly everyday tasks become a little trickier. Much of this difficulty can be overcome–to a degree at least–by a variety of means, including seeing-eye dogs for getting around or braille for reading.

If you are a blind American and need to buy a mid-afternoon snack, though, you might be out of luck–unless, of course, you’re willing to blindly trust the honesty and generosity of every stranger with whom you exchange money for goods or services. As recent Oxford graduate and current Yale Law student Cyrus Habib notes in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, a decision by a District Court may force the U.S. to join the majority of the world’s countries, which by and large print bills whose denominations are readily distinguishable by the blind… that is, unless the U.S. Treasury Department has its way:

Blind Americans may soon find themselves able to use money just like anyone else. That is unless the Treasury Department is successful this month in its appeal of a recent federal court order that paper currency be made recognizable to the blind, who are currently unable to distinguish one denomination from another.

I, for example, rely on the generosity of cab drivers, baristas and store clerks each time I make a purchase with cash. That I have rarely been ripped off is a testament to their honesty or my charm, but I cannot help but protest the perpetual necessity for either. After all, there are 180 countries in which this is not the case, because their currency is designed to be distinguishable by all.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson asked the Treasury Department to determine the best means of making money distinguishable by the blind, citing the myriad solutions proposed by the organization that filed the lawsuit, the American Council of the Blind. These included using raised ink, modifying the size of certain bills and producing a tactile mark to indicate a bill’s denomination. The Treasury Department has objected to all such solutions, claiming that the $75 million price tag is simply too high.

Of course, Treasury’s lawyers fail to mention that the cost would have been far lower had the department acted voluntarily when the $20 bill was redesigned in 1998 and the $10 bill was modified last year. Instead, it has decided to spend our tax money fighting the blind in court, appealing Judge Robertson’s decision even before a final judgment on the nature of a solution could be reached.

Despite its international leadership role, the U.S. continues to lag behind the rest of the world in several key areas (health care and capital punishment spring to mind readily). Currency distinguishable by the blind is no exception, and hopefully the U.S. will do the right thing in this case.


  1. #1 The Ridger
    January 18, 2007

    All those people whining about this have obviously never had to tell a blind friend that his ten is really a five – or a one – because some clerk ripped him off.

  2. #2 csrster
    January 19, 2007

    It’s amazing. Even using different colours for different denominations would be a help to the partially sighted and/or terminally careless.

  3. #3 Peter
    January 19, 2007

    This is a real no-brainer. Only the US government could end up on the wrong side.

  4. #4 Organic Chemistry
    February 22, 2007

    I agree, complete no-brainer.

New comments have been disabled.