Federal Judge: Make Cash Accessible to the Blind

A federal district court judge in Washington has ruled that Federal Reserve Notes must be redesigned to allow the blind and visually impaired to more easily distinguish between denominations:

U.S. District Judge James Robertson said keeping all U.S. currency the same size and texture violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs.

“Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations,” Robertson wrote in his ruling. “More than 100 of the other issuers vary their bills in size according to denomination, and every other issuer includes at least some features that help the visually impaired.” …

In the lawsuit, which has been in the court system for four years, government attorneys argued that forcing the Treasury Department to change the size of the bills or add texture would make it harder to prevent counterfeiting. Robertson was not swayed.

“The fact that each of these features is currently used in other currencies suggests that, at least on the face of things, such accommodations are reasonable,” he wrote.

“I’m sure there were concerns around the cost of coming out with all these new bills (to prevent counterfeiting),” [Andrew] Imparato [of the American Association of People with Disabilities] said. “When you’re already going through the cost of the new design, I don’t think it would cost a lot more to build in accessibility.”

He acknowledged that many Americans may not want to make the change to different sized currency. Several attempts to move U.S. currency to a dollar coin have failed in the past, though the Treasury Department announced last week that it is going to give it another go with new coins struck with images of the deceased presidents.

“The main argument in favor of not doing that is tradition, and tradition and accessibility do not always mix,” Imparato said.

Robertson wouldn’t say how Treasury must do it, but he gave the government agency 10 days to start working on new bills that the blind can tell apart.

I’m not quite as amused/chagrined by this ruling as Viking Pundit, and I think there is a reasonable case to be made for making different denominations of money recognizable by size (along with getting rid of the dollar bill). That said, the most likely outcome of this whole debate–even with a party taking over that might be expected to be more sympathetic to people with disabilities–is that Congress will amend the Rehabilitation Act to exempt paper currency from its requirements rather than irritating the retail and banking sectors by allowing the decision to stand, thereby forcing the Fed to introduce new money that doesn’t fit in existing cash registers and vending machines.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Mark says:

    But at the same time, if it is upheld, the dollar-coin lobby would be absolutely delighted.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I think a major proportion of Americans would see this as an example of that notorious “judicial activism” that really pisses them off.

    Congress could exempt currency, but with the new leadership coming in, I think that would happen only after a dozen multi-million dollar studies came to that conclusion.

    Just don’t take any wooden nickels.

  3. floyd says:

    that’s today’s america,pseudo-iconoclastic with no legitimate target-icons!!

  4. What percentage of your purchases do you in cash today versus credit/debit card? Could you go to all plastic if you HAD to? Wouldn’t you WANT to go to all plastic if you went legally blind?

    For that matter when was the last time you looked over and saw a blind person at a grocery store (hard to pick out items), gas station (hard to drive) or the other top 5 places where cash is used? I am sure they are out there, but I am pretty confident that the vast majority of them have support structures and help.

    I was overseas recently and didn’t understand or have time to figure out the money when I was in a convenience store. So I held out a bunch of cash/coins and the clerk took what she needed. I am pretty sure that the sighted clerk at the U.S. Starbucks does the same thing when that poor blind man comes in for a cup a joe.

    But, hey, spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars redesigning money for a micro-fraction of people who experience an inconvenience is what activist judges like to do.

  5. Christopher says:

    OMG this story is so freakin FUNNY! Liberalism gone off the deep end, even after I had thought most of the deep ends had already been gone off of. Yea, so funny it almost makes me cry.

    We learn a couple of things from this story:
    1) The judge is definitely a lib.
    2) Chris Lawrence (as given away by his distaste for American currency) is a European (as given away by his focus on paper size), or at least wants to be one (with no dollar bills, how would we tip the “exotic” dancers in their waistbands?). I’d say more mean things about my namesake but then James would censor me.
    3) I hearby start the first conservative wacko conspiracy theory: that this is all a liberal plot of the new party in power to gain control over the money supply (remember that liberals aren’t smart enough to know that the money supply is more than just currency, so this would be just the type of plot they would try).

    Do I hear agreement among my fellow conservative wackos?

  6. LJD says:

    Would have been nice to coordinate this effort with the recent redesign of the bills at a cost of how many millions of taxpayer dollars?

    On another note, I still can’t figure out the logic behind the braille on a DRIVE-UP ATM! (Or that it’s low enough to reach from a wheelchair- but not my truck)

  7. Michael A says:

    While good things can be said for currency having varied color and size, this should not be attempted by judicial activism. Here we have a more serious issue of a judge who insists on applying standards from beyond our borders to our government.

    I have spent time in Australia and do like their currency which does vary in size and color. I also like their AU$2 coin which is about the diameter of our nickel, making it very easy to carry enough money in coins to make many transactions without having to pull out a wallet.

  8. Beldar says:

    The issue here isn’t whether it’s a good or bad policy. The issue is whether a federal judge should be over-interpreting a federal statute to seize policy-making authority from a Congress who almost certainly didn’t intend him to do so, and who didn’t authorize him to do so, under a constitutional system of government that doesn’t permit him to do so.

  9. Anderson says:

    from a Congress who almost certainly didn’t intend him to do so

    Sigh. How do you tell what Congress intends? From reading the laws they pass, right? Is that what the judge did, or isn’t it?

    A judge saying to Congress “I’m going to do what you told me to do” is one of the few ways to get Congress to fix bad laws.

  10. Rodney Dill says:

    Of course currently technology would enable a portable reader that can scan existing money and ‘speak’ the denomination. That would place some of the burden/cost on the actual visually impaired person, but in instances this may be preferred.

  11. Rodney Dill says:

    and as googled in about two minutes


  12. Wayne says:

    The judge was out of line and being an activist.
    The solution was pretty obvious and simple. Even if the machine didn’t already exist, it wouldn’t take much imagination to think that we can take a reader similar to vending machine and put a voice or brail output on it. Problem with to many in our society is they spend most of their time complaining instead of working on a solution.

    I’m still waiting for the lawsuit to force cripples into the NBA. Already happen in golf.

  13. Anderson says:

    “Cripples.” Nice, Wayne. That’s your real name, isn’t it?

  14. floyd says:

    why not build a pocket sized, hand held electronic currency reader and give it to the blind. this would relieve the burden of change and solve the problem .

  15. dutchmarbel says:

    In addition to different colours and sizes the euro bills have relief print on the banknotes. Wouldn’t the latter be a starting point that is not so difficult to implement? The Dutch notes had tactile marks in the corner (higher number of dots – higher value)