Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What You See is What You Get

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a decision by a lower court, made in 2006, which ruled that the U.S. discriminates against blind people by printing money that is indistinguishable by feel. The Treasury Department has been fighting this change for a long time by saying that it shouldn't have to be told how to design money and that the blind have adapted to the greenbacks by asking store clerks to help, using credit cards or by folding bills of different denomination differently...

Considering that the U.S. has an extensive set of guidelines through the Americans with Disabilities Act and through its wide adoption in most public places (such as restaurants and libraries), it is indeed an anachronism that the debate on making the currency more friendly is still happening. I remember having this conversation years ago with Americans as well as with Europeans.

Growing up in India, I never thought about the fact that each note was distinctly colored and of a different size. I never made the mistake of handing out a Rs. 20 bill when I meant to give Rs. 5. The bills ascend in size with denomination. We have done away with the old Rs. 1 and Rs. 2 bills- they are now coins. The Rs. 5 bill is the smallest paper denomination now. The colorful notes make for a pretty riot of color in your wallet.

Moving to the U.S., I found the greenback (and its more recent reincarnation, the somewhat-pinkback) to be all alike. I found myself pulling out the wrong note quite often compared to never before. There have been times when someone has pointed out to me that I had the wrong denomination. I am sure there have been other times when the wrong denomination has slipped out or in unnoticed. The greenback has been designed very conveniently to fit the billfold wallet. You don't have notes of different sizes floating in it. They all stack in nicely. I wondered how convenient it was to have this lovely uniform greenback if you were blind.

One of my dearest friends is blind and has been from a very young age. She is an associate professor of political science at an east coast university. She is completely self-sufficient and owns her own home. I brought up the issue of the currency on one of our many chats. And yes, she has tried to adapt given that she cannot change the currency. But of course, it is an inconvenience as I saw myself when I accompanied her to the store sometimes. Someone has to tell her what a particular note is and then she tries to fold it a certain way and put it in a pocket. I suspect, she loses money sometimes as folded bills also feel like wadded up paper and receipts. But perhaps I am wrong.
Meantime, the Europeans have moved on. Since the introduction of the Euro, this discussion is a non-starter as the Euro not only has distinct colors, it is also sized differently with lower denominations being smaller.

Changing the dollar to make it more distinct for distinct denominations is an idea whose time came a while ago. The U.S. is playing catch up now. Why should a simple change like this not be made when the benefits to a whole section of the population are easily recognizable? Having distinct bills is good for everyone as it reduces denominational errors but it is imperative that this change go through for those of us who shouldn't have to rely on someone else for something so simple as telling change.

[Click on pictures to be taken to website where they were found. The picture of the Rupees is taken by Steve Mullen. Thanks!]

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