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U.S. currency discriminates against blind, judge rules

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge here ruled on Tuesday that the government illegally discriminated against blind people by printing all of its paper currency on bills of the same size that cannot be distinguished by touch.

The judge ordered the Treasury Department to start discussing within 30 days potential remedies, including different note sizes for different denominations, and raised numerals and perforated dots on the bills.

"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," wrote the judge, James Robertson.

Robertson said that euro notes came in bigger sizes for higher denominations, and had raised numerals as well as foil patches in different shapes. Japanese notes have rough patches to help identify them by touch. Swiss francs feature intaglia printing and perforated numerals, and other countries use sequences of perforated dots.

"The fact that each of these features is currently used in other currencies suggests that, on the face of things, such accommodations are reasonable," Robertson wrote.

The Treasury Department refused to comment on the decision or on whether it would appeal the order, which came after a four-year court fight between the government and the American Council of the Blind.

The Treasury Department had argued that making bills identifiable by touch would create an undue financial burden for the government. It had estimated the most expensive approach — printing different sizes for different denominations — would cost $178 million for new printing presses and as much as $50 million for new plates.

Robertson said that cost would be small compared with the $4.2 billion that the government spent on currency production in the past 10 years.

He also rejected as "utterly unpersuasive" government pleas that new tactile features might undermine the anti-counterfeiting features. He also dismissed the government's argument that such features might undermine the greenback's international acceptance, saying, "This contention is not only not supported but, on its face, absurd."

Day Al-Mohamed, director of advocacy and government affairs for the American Council of the Blind, said the decision addressed a constant problem for people with little or no eyesight.

Paper currency "is one of the biggest parts of everyday life, and we just don't have access to it," Al-Mohamed said. About 937,000 people in the United States are legally blind, and 2.3 million people have "low vision" even when wearing corrective lenses.

The American Council of the Blind had argued that American paper currency was "inaccessible" to people without eyesight and violated the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination in government programs against people with disabilities.

Robertson said people with severely impaired vision were inherently vulnerable to being cheated if they had to depend on other people to distinguish among a $1 bill, a $20 bill or a $100 bill.

In 1995, he added, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that three features could be incorporated into American banknotes: distinctive sizes for each denomination, increasing the size and contrast of numerals, and varying the notes' colors to help people with limited vision.