Court Says Dollar Design Discriminates Against Blind

A U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled the Treasury Department is discriminating against the blind by printing money that is all the same size, with no tactile features that would make it possible to distinguish, say, a $10 bill from a $20. The decision could force the Treasury Department to redesign U.S. bills.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

According to a federal appeals court, American paper money is discriminatory. Today the court ruled that paper currency discriminates against the blind people because the blind have no way of telling one denomination from another. No way to tell a five from a 10, or 10 from a 20. Now the Treasury Department has to figure out a way to make the bills distinguishable.

NPR's Adam Davidson went back to the roots of the court case.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The story of this lawsuit begins with a tragedy, actually two tragedies that happened to the same woman. Jeff Lovitky is the lead attorney - okay, he's the only attorney representing the American Council of the Blind. Lovitky sued the U.S. government as a tribute to his girlfriend, Sandra Wellner(ph). She is the one who suffered two tragedies.

The first happened years ago in Holland. She was there on vacation, ate some bad food and got a lousy case of diarrhea. Not a big deal, but she went to the hospital because she felt so poorly. The hospital didn't do anything. They just left her there for a few hours - dehydrated.

Mr. JEFFREY LOVITKY (Lawyer): She was in the hospital in the - essentially as I understand it, a waiting area and she actually collapsed and expired, heart stopped.

DAVIDSON: Oh, my god.

Mr. LOVITKY: And that resulted in a brain injury.

DAVIDSON: When he says she expired, Lovitky means her heart stopped for a few minutes and then she was revived. The brain damage hurt her vision and made it impossible for her to distinguish one bill from another.

Mr. LOVITKY: And so she would always ask me to sort of sort to her currency and put fives in one envelope and 10s in another envelope and 20s in another. And I began to realize at that point that this is a problem.

DAVIDSON: Lovitky dated Wellner for eight years. He was developing his legal practice devoted to suing the U.S. government over Medicare reimbursements. Then one day, in 2001, Wellner's house caught on fire. She died. Lovitky, needless to say, was devastated and became obsessed with doing something to honor her memory.

He thought about those bills and the envelopes and he decided that's what he should focus on. He researched the law, found the American Council of the Blind through a Google search; they hired him.

Mr. LOVITKY: Sandy passed away in September of 2001. And his case was brought in May of 2002.

DAVIDSON: So pretty quick.

Mr. LOVITKY: Yeah, well, I mean I was determine to do something. I knew I wanted to do a case in her memory.

DAVIDSON: It's worth noting that not all blind people support this idea. In fact, the largest advocacy group - the National Federation of the Blind - sided with Treasury, saying leave the bills alone. Their spokesman is Chris Danielson.

Mr. CHRIS DANIELSON (National Federation of the Blind): It's not in our best interest to put out this notion that we are helpless people who cannot even get through a transaction at the 7-11.

DAVIDSON: Danielson is blind. He says it is a pain to deal with U.S. bills, but there are bigger problems, like the fact that many companies won't hire blind people because they think the blind are inept. Treasury did not return NPR's calls and did not say whether the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Adam Davison, NPR News.

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