Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Discrimination is in the eye of the beholder

Normally the Federal District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is considered a serious court; just behind the U.S. Supreme Court in stature. But the other day this Court of Appeals undid decades of respectful service by its decision in a case concerning United States money; yes, that’s right, our very own paper dollars instantly recognizable around the world in various denominations.

According to this venerable court, because all paper money has pretty much the same feel, the Appellate Court ruled "the government is denying blind people meaningful access to the currency." The courts decision could require the Treasury Department to "make bills of different sizes or print them with raised markings or other distinguishing features."

As is often the situation in our judicial system, the case lingered around the courts for years, six years to be exact. The American Council of the Blind sued for changes in the currency, but the unsympathetic government has been fighting the case. Of course our currency as it is now makes it difficult for blind people but there are many things in our society that cause difficulties for some folks; most haven’t thought of suing about it yet but this Court of Appeals decision may just encourage them to "seek redress in the courts" for these unforgivable acts of discrimination.

Discrimination is what the case is all about and the court agreed with the organization for the blind. The court ruled 2-1 that existing adaptations to make up for "inconvenience" to blind people were insufficient under the Rehabilitation Act. "The government might as well argue that there's no need to make buildings accessible to wheelchairs because handicapped people can crawl on all fours or ask passers-by for help", the court said. Note: the court set a new standard for discrimination; "inconvenience".

Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote for the majority "Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill. The secretary (of the Treasury) has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch".

Unfortunately for the blind and for this court, judges don't decide how to design currency; this function appears to still be up to the Treasury Department but the court’s ruling may force the Treasury department to address what the court called a "discriminatory problem."

Although the process of redesigning currency could take years, a spokesman for the Council of the Blind said that "since blindness becomes more common with age, people in their 30s and 40s should know that, when they get older, they will be able to identify their $1 bills from their fives, tens and twenties."

The government could ask for a rehearing by the full appeals court or challenge the decision to the Supreme Court however Treasury Department spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said the department was reviewing the opinion and noted that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints the nation's currency, recently hired a contractor to consider ways to help the blind. She said the results will be available early next year.

Actually the Treasury department has previously considered making bills of different sizes but ran into opposition from makers of vending and change machines. Government lawyers raised this issue in court, saying it could cost billions to redesign vending machines. But the court said such data are murky, especially since one proposed solution would be to leave $1 bills unchanged. (Nothing was said about the many machines that take bills of different denominations.)

The Appellate Court said the government failed to explain why adding more changes would be an undue burden since currency has been redesigned recently. One of the court's majority said more than 100 other countries vary the size of their bills and others include at least some features to help the blind. The appeals court ruling said the U.S. never explained why such solutions wouldn't work here.

Interestingly, not all blind people agree that U.S. money should be changed. The National Federation of the Blind, another organization dedicated to assist the blind, sided with the government and told the appeals court that no changes were needed. A legally blind manager of a shop inside the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. said he doesn't oppose changing the money but disagrees with the ruling. "To actually be discriminated against is to have something denied to you. We're not denied the use of money."

Too bad the Court of Appeals was not possessed of such common sense.

In view of this decision, let us reflect on other "inconvenienced" (discriminated) groups who might consider suing for better treatment.

Obese people have difficulty fitting into airplane coach seats; shouldn’t airplane cabins be redesigned with them in mind, or shouldn’t they be given larger first class seats for the price of coach?

Bald men are at risk for skin cancer when out in the sun. Why shouldn’t restaurants with outdoor seating areas provide sun shaded sections for bald men to reduce this risk?

Senior citizens (of which I am one) get discounts at movies, etc. Doesn’t that discriminate against ‘non seniors’?

By the way, blind people can bring dogs into public places where dogs are otherwise prohibited; does that discriminate against seeing people?

You get the point.

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