Blinded by the ADA

A federal judge mandated that currency should be distinguishable by the blind, as an acquiescence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

My spouses, comment: “Great, but when are they going to get around to helping the blind see the traffic lights so they can drive?”

It’s true that there are possible solutions to give currency a better readability to the visually impaired. Bills could be different sizes, they could be notched, holed, or braille punched. But these non-visual cues would actually aid in the defrauding of the blind if they come to depend on these features. Right now they have no assumptions, beyond trusting the giver, that they have the correct currency. In a system where the braille might be correct for the denomination, they would depend less on their trust in fellow human, and more on an artifice that is much more easily modified than all the watermarks, threads, microprint and other visually-oriented rigamarole.

From a legal perspective, it also would put a huge burden on the federal court system. If a person gives the incorrect change to a blind person, short changes them in effect, that’s misdemeanor theft. If they modify the currency to defraud someone, that’s federal counterfeiting charges. There’s really no way to push that kind of law down into the state or local systems, since currency is, well, federal.

Added to all this is the cost to change every one of the American currency manipulating machines. Counters, sorters, currency reading machines, ATMs. Sure, it can be done: all these sorts of equipment are used around the world, where there are lots of countries with differently-sized and -colored bills. But the cost to do all this, the user acceptance, is incredibly painful and will actually help counterfeiters defraud Americans even more.

All in all, I think marking currency for the blind is a bad idea.

The handicapped (differently abled, challenged, et al) are just that: working in a world where everyone has some kind of limiter that keeps some part of them from operating at 100%. Short, tall, fat, color-blind, dyslexic, dispeptic, depressed, manic, obsessive-compulsive, sloppy: you name it, someone has it.

Of course, people who are blind, deaf, or do not have even usual range of motion of legs or hands are at especial disadvantage. And the ADA has done a great job of ensuring that handicapped accessible spaces are the norm, not the exception (although that may be due to the “ahah!” moment of businesses, realizing that those in wheelchairs have credit cards too).

In the matter of currency, I think adapting ‘reading pens’–small form-factor OCR readers–is a better solution than overhauling the entire treasury system. Just as we ensure that parking spaces nearest building entrances are reserved for the handicapped, we should ensure that the blind have cost-effective access to these kinds of reader tools. And, if they can’t afford them, then the government (federal, state, local) should ensure there is a program for them to be either given away, purchaed, or lent.

An even better solution would be smart card readers or credit swiping machines that have the ability to vocalize transactions. That would keep cash out of the loop, and the blind consumer more in control over their money. Banks could provide blind users with free smart card or debit card services above and beyond sighted users. After all, it would drive both loyalty and keeping more cash where they can get their greedy hands on it.

And keep the currency, as with automobile driving, focused on the sighted user.