The Boston Globe, USA
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Perkins adds voice to suit against US
By Stephanie V. Siek, Globe Staff
Take out a $1 bill, $5 bill, and a $10 bill. Now close your eyes. Can you
tell which is which?
Now imagine trying to buy a candy bar, or pay for a bus ticket, or get
change from a taxi driver. You are left dependent upon the honesty and good
will of others to avoid being cheated.
A Watertown institution, the Perkins School for the Blind, is offering
support to a legal battle to force the United States to do what such
countries as Canada, China, Gambia, Bangladesh, Australia and the members of
the European Union already do: Print currency that is distinguishable by
people who can't see.
The United States was the only one out of 171 currency-issuing bodies that
lacked bills with features to help nonsighted or low-vision people tell
different denominations apart, according to a 1995 study by the National
Academy of Sciences. Other countries use such methods as different sizes for
each denomination, embossed numbers or symbols, high-contrast colors, and
The American Council of the Blind in 2002 filed a lawsuit alleging that the
US Treasury discriminated against the visually impaired by repeatedly
failing to redesign its paper money in a way that would allow it to be
readily distinguishable. In November, a federal court judge ruled in the
council's favor. The government is appealing the decision.
Last week, two Yale University School of Law students came to the Perkins
School to interview students, staff, and community members. The testimony
will be used to prepare a friend-of-the-court brief offering the school's
position on the case.
The issue is one with particular relevance for one of the law students,
Cyrus Habib, who has been blind since birth.
After US District Judge James Robertson's decision last fall, Habib
approached one of his professors, Harold Hongju Koh, who is also the law
school's dean and is notable for his work in civil and human rights cases.
"He said, 'Someone should really write an amicus brief on this,' " said
Habib, referring to the "friend" filing. "I didn't realize at the time that
was code for 'Get busy.' "
But eventually he did, along with classmate Jon Finer. Koh is supervising
the pair's work.
"People shouldn't have to rely on other people to do something," said Habib,
referring to how visually impaired people need help at the cash register.
"This is deeply American — the idea of being an individual, being
"A day like this is fantastic," Finer said after the two first-year law
students met with Perkins students last Friday. "It pushes the issue forward
just being here."
But t he currency issue isn't just a consumer issue for visually impaired
people; it also can affect their job opportunities.
Perkins student Cory Kadlik, 16, discovered this when he called a deli near
his home in Medway about a part-time job that would involve working the cash
register. The owner turned him down, saying that dishonest customers could
take advantage of Kadlik.
"I feel bad for them because they want to give you the job, but they can't,"
Kadlik said of potential employers like the deli owner. "It kills them to do
that. I feel bad and they feel bad, it's a mess. I just cry."
One of the school's social workers, in a later session, agreed.
"The ability to manage your own money, to be independent in that way. . .
that's so greatly affected," said Jim Witmer. "The simplest of transactions
and purchases requires some sort of assistance. They don't have the access
their peers do, and built into that is learning mathematics, learning social
Tyler Tarrasi, a 17-year-old from Framingham, said he feels at a
disadvantage to sighted teens his age looking for work in a store. "When you
can't read the money, you can't have the job."
There are more than 3 million blind or low-vision people in the United
States, according to the National Eye Institute, and not all of them agree
with the American Council of the Blind's position. The National Federation
of the Blind called Robertson's decision "dangerously misguided," and argued
that such efforts distract from more important problems, such as lack of
access to information in Braille and other formats.
"The blind need jobs and real opportunities to earn money, not feel-good
gimmicks that misinform the public about our capabilities," the federation's
president, Dr. Marc Maurer, said in a statement after the November court
decision. The ruling, he went on to say, "argues that the blind cannot
handle currency or documents in the workplace and that virtually everything
must be modified for the use of the blind. An employer who believes that. .
. will have a strong incentive not to hire a blind person."
Almost 38,000 people in Massachusetts are legally or totally blind,
according to the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.
The US government's defense is that failing to have discernible currency may
be an inconvenience, but it is not discriminatory. It also maintained that
redesigning paper money would be too expensive, an argument that Robertson
Using estimates from the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing, he
reasoned that the most expensive design option, making bills in different
sizes, would cost up to $228 million initially and $52 million more per year
than the current design. He noted the cost would amount to "only a small
fraction" of the bureau's budget.
"Over the past 10 years — and two redesigns — the BEP has spent $4.2
billion on currency production, an average of $420 million per year,"
Robertson said in his decision. He added that if adaptive features were
incorporated into a pre planned redesign, "the total burden of adding such a
feature would be even smaller."
As an alternative to using redesigned cash, the Treasury's lawyers said,
blind people could use digital currency readers, or pay for items with debit
or credit cards.
Habib said plastic cards are often useless in such daily transactions as
buying candy or a subway ticket. Besides, he said, he still needs a sighted
person to verify that a credit card receipt is correct.
As for currency readers, they are costly, heavy, and are unreliable with
worn bills, advocates for the blind say.
The federal government also said the visually impaired can identify paper
money by developing their own money-handling techniques, such as folding
each denomination a different way, or keeping bills in different pockets.
In response, blind people note that they still have to rely on others to
make sure they receive or give the correct change.
Alison Roberts of Waltham is a co founder of OurMoneyToo.org, an
Internet-based organization fighting for currency change. At a meeting with
Habib and Finer, she demonstrated a commonly used reader. The Note Teller
took more than two minutes to "read" five bills, and the newly redesigned
$20 bill wasn't recognized at all.
"Imagine you're the person behind me in line," said Judi Cannon, who is
blind and a Braille services specialist at Perkins.
Or, Roberts added, imagine you're a cashier, trying to use the Note Teller
to count up the day's receipts.
Jason Campbell, a 21-year-old Perkins student, said not being able to handle
money reinforces stereotypes about blind people.
"They think blind people can't do much," he said. If they don't give you a
chance, you can't prove them wrong. And maybe they don't want to be proven
Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at email@example.com.