The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Blind designs on US dollar

Washington, Dec. 6: The US dollar is at the centre of a big crisis. Not because it now costs almost $2 to buy £1 or because the Euro has been steadily rising against the once mighty American currency.

A judge here has ruled that the American government discriminates against blind people by printing greenbacks which they cannot distinguish. The treasury department is crying foul. Its lawyer argued before the court last week that changing the design or format of the US dollar would not only be prohibitively expensive, but will also be exploited by counterfeiters.

Besides, the treasury said, changes would affect the global acceptance of the dollar and undermine confidence in the currency.

The district judge, James Robertson, called the treasury’s reasoning “absurd”. But he has not suggested any remedy. Instead, he has asked the government to come up with possible solutions and present them in his court within 30 days.

But businesses here are already nervous. About two million of them in the US have vending machines on their premises, which are designed to accept dollars in their present size.

Modifying these machines will cost hundreds of dollars each. “We are terribly disappointed,” Tom McMahon said on behalf of the National Automatic Merchandising Association regarding the proposed changes to the US currency.

There are automatic teller machines and coin converters not only in banks, but also in shopping malls, hotels and other public places including airports, all of which will need modification. Banks have note counters and other currency dispensers made to suit the dollar in its current design.

Changes to the dollar will also have international ramifications. Never mind the oligarchs in Ukraine or the corrupt politicians in Nigeria who have stashed away their illicit wealth in greenbacks.

There are several countries which either do not print their own currency or allow the US dollar to be used as legal tender. These include Ecuador, East Timor, El Salvador, Panama, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. In many others, such as Bermuda and the Bahamas, the parity of their money is fixed at a 1:1 ratio to the US dollar.

But judge Robertson is unmoved by arguments against change. “Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency, only the US prints bills that are identical in size and colour in all their denominations,” he ruled last week.

“It can no longer be successfully argued that a blind person has ‘meaningful access’ to currency if (s)he cannot accurately identify paper money without assistance.”

At present, in some states blind people are taught how to fold notes individually and distinguish them, but the process is cumbersome.

Most of them rely on the good faith of strangers when conducting business transactions and are liable to be cheated.

That the case, filed by the American Council of the Blind against the US Treasury Department, has taken four years to come to this ruling reflects the huge challenge of changing the design and format of the dollar.

But not all blind people are happy with the ruling. The National Federation of the Blind, the largest organisation of blind people in the US, has criticised Robertson’s ruling as dangerously misguided.

Marc Maurer, the federation’s president, said in a press release: “The blind need jobs and real opportunities to earn money, not feel-good gimmicks that misinform the public about our capabilities.

“Blind people transact business with paper money every day. This ruling puts a roadblock in the way of solving the real problem, which is the 70 per cent unemployment rate among working-age blind Americans that severely limits our access to cash.”

Maurer added the “treasury has been ordered by the courts to come up with a solution for a non-existent problem”.

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