Blind Community in Conflict over Money Redesign

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Some advocates for the blind are pressing the federal government to change the way the government prints paper money. They want new bills that help blind people distinguish between different denominations, so a $20 bill feels different from a $10 or a $5 bill. But not all blind people agree that a redesign is in order.

MADELEINE BRAND, host: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

American currency in its bill form has long been criticized for looking and feeling too similar and therefore posing a problem for blind people. There's a move now to redesign the currency so that the blind can more easily tell their ones from their 20s, but some blind people don't want any changes.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Most countries already print money in different sizes, colors, or with bumps and raised watermarks. So last month when a judge in New York said it's time for American money to be redesigned, groups that represent the blind and visually impaired cheered, except for the National Federation of the Blind.

Now that group says it will file a brief in support of the Bush administration, which announced this week it will appeal the judge's ruling.

Mr. JAMES GASHEL (National Federation of the Blind): The currency system doesn't discriminate against blind people. I can prove it.

SHAPIRO: James Gashel is with the National Federation of the Blind.

Mr. GASHEL: I've been blind for 60 years. I've been spending money regularly hand over fist. I go to a Starbucks coffee stand and buy coffee and I have nobody refusing to do business with me.

SHAPIRO: Gashel's argument is that blind people don't need government to help them keep track of their money. He pulled out his wallet.

Mr. GASHEL: I actually have $20 bills right there. I know that's a 20 because I got it out of an ATM machine about two weeks ago. Now, can I see the number on the $20s? No, I can't.

SHAPIRO: But like most blind people, he's come up with his own system for keeping track of bills. He folds $20s twice and puts them in one part of his wallet. He folds $50 three times into a square.

SHAPIRO: How do you fold a $1000 bill?

Mr. GASHEL: I haven't had to worry about that.

SHAPIRO: It's not that Gashel's always against suing for rights. His group sued Target saying blind people can't use its Web site. But Gashel says if blind people sue too often or take to much assistance then it creates misunderstandings about just how much help blind people need. He's especially worried about employers.

Mr. GASHEL: I don't want the employer to think that he has to do things if he hires me that he really wouldn't have to do.

SHAPIRO: Like pay for a lot of expensive accommodations, the computer systems or the physical layout of the office. It's been 16 years since Congress passed civil rights law that protects the disabled from discrimination in the work place.

But the unemployment rate for people with severe disabilities hasn't budged. About 70 percent are still unemployed. Some economists blame bias. Then there's the belief that it's the law itself that hurts. That's a minority position argued by a few academics and business groups and by a few disabled people like Gashel.

Mr. GASHEL: And lots of employers will say, look, we're a business out here, we're not a charity. I'd like to hire you but we're not the U.S. government, we can't afford to do all these things.

SHAPIRO: The people who brought the lawsuit about U.S. currency disagree. They say the whole point is to give blind people more opportunities, especially in the work force. Day Al-Mohammed is with the American Council of the Blind.

Ms. DAY Al-MOHAMMED (American Council of the Blind): Most people the first jobs they get out of high school and college are ones in retail or in fast food and all of those rely on being able to differentiate between paper currency.

SHAPIRO: Al-Mohammed says those entry jobs are important because they give any kid, blind or sighted, basic job skills. Ones that help them get their next job. Al-Mohammed's first job, before she went to law school, was to teach piano to children. She says redesigned bills will end up helping blind and sighted people. One man told her it would be a good thing for his wife, who's a cashier at a bank.

Ms. Al-MOHAMMED: When you're counting out the bills, they're all green and they all look the same. She goes you know for them it actually would be a little bit easier.

SHAPIRO: If currency does get redesigned, Al-Mohammed doubts sighted people would resent blind people. She says they'll thank them. When they try to see what bills they've just pulled out in a dimly lit restaurant or in the back of a dark taxi.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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Is That a George Washington in My Pocket?

Dutch banknotes

These Dutch banknotes were designed with raised marks to help visually impaired people. Audrius Tomonis / Banknotes Images hide caption

itoggle caption Audrius Tomonis / Banknotes Images

You might not know who's buried in Grant's tomb, but you may soon know whether he's in your pocket. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Treasury Department must include features on all banknotes to give visually impaired people access to money. (That includes Grant, who's on the $50 bill.)

"Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency," Judge James Robertson wrote in his decision, "only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations. Every other issuer includes at least some features that help the visually impaired."

If the U.S. changes dollar designs (the government has 10 days to appeal Robertson's decision), options include watermarks, different-sized bills — even different colors. Here’s how other countries do it.

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