We Should Change Our Currency

Remember early in the movie "Ray"? Remember how Jamie Foxx, as blind singing legend Ray Charles, angrily caught the guy who was paying him short? I think of that scene every time I think of the current dispute over what our currency ought to look and feel like. Last month, remember, a federal judge ruled that the Treasury Department's failure to make bills more distinguishable to blind people violates federal law. And earlier this week, to no one's surprise, the feds appealed that decision.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson wrote in his controversial ruling about ways in which blind people currently manage to distinguish between greenbacks. "Visually impaired Americans have developed a variety of
methods for keeping track of the value of their paper money after their bills have been properly identified for them," he wrote. "Ms. Brunson folds her currency into different shapes: she keeps $1 bills straight; she folds $5 bills in half left-to-right, $10 bills in half top-to-bottom, and $20 bills in quarters. Dep. of Melanie Brunson, [#33-2, at 32]. Other blind individuals keep different denominations in separate parts or pockets of their wallets or purses." This is poignant. He also wrote about the ways in which blind people can be cheated. That is sad. It's no wonder the judge found that the Treasury Department's current unfriendly policy toward the blind violates the federal Rehabilitation Act.

The trial court ruling is not unreasonable-- whether it is upheld on appeal is another question. But apart from the legal future of the case, it's a topic worth talking about. Nearly 1 million Americans are legally blind. We revise the look of our money all the time, gradually phasing out old styles while introducing new ones. Just in the past few years the Treasury Department has changed the look of our paper money to better foil copycats. So why can't the feds do the same to help blind people better tell when they are holding a Lincoln and when they are holding a Washington or a Franklin? The model for change already exists. What does not, at least until now, is the will to use it.

By Andrew Cohen |  December 13, 2006; 10:15 AM ET
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One would think that there could be a hand-held device that a blind person can slide a bill through that will call out the denomination.

Posted by: MC | December 13, 2006 07:35 PM

This is a typical knee-jerk reaction that does not consider the real-world impact nor the effectiveness of the judicial remedy, mandating the unrealistic.

Adding braille like indicators to money would not work because they would likely wear down. Changing the size of the currency would have limited value because the existing currency would remain in circulation for decades and it would require all Americans to change their wallets.

In truth as circulating currency goes the way of the dodo, we are all blind. Electronic exchanges can be frauds, printing one amount while charging back to our accounts a different one. As most exchanges are electronic today, how do you convey to the blind, much less the sighted, the actual amount of the transaction? I have never seen a braille receipt printer at a restaurant.

Posted by: Constititionalist | December 14, 2006 03:52 AM

Hey, Constititionalist (sic), dollar bills rarely go more than a few years in circulation before they're replaced. And small changes in bill size do not require a new wallet.

Believe me, I'm sure that the feds, who have no problem spending years on trying to change bills to foil counterfeiters, could come up with a good way to satisfy blind people's needs -- if the feds would just be willing to spend a few extra minutes thinking about it.

Posted by: Ryan | December 14, 2006 03:36 PM

Gee whiz Ryan, I think since $1 bills are the smallest currency they are the least concern of the blind. I think that $10s and $20s and larger denominations circulate a little longer.

My understanding is that small, subtle differences in size would not be appropriate as blind friends have told me they mainly differentiate between a quarter and a nickle based on the rim (quarters have ridges, nickles do not). That is a pretty subtle size.

Also, changing currency size or otherwise making currency more accessible does not solve the more important issue, how do you handle clearly electronic currency transactions? Since even small purchases such as fast food meals are now executed through debit and credit cards, I think that is the real problem.

Posted by: Constitutionalist | December 14, 2006 03:53 PM

There isn't a solution to level the field so even the disadvantaged are happy. That's sort of what being disadvantaged is about. I'm not happy that the disadvantaged can't be wholly happy.... I'm just pointing out, short of electronic-stimulation implants, or talking money, the disadvantaged are going to have to be somewhat disadvantaged. Braille markings could be unscrupulously copied onto inappropriate denominations.

Posted by: Dave | December 16, 2006 12:26 AM

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