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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Currency and the Blind

Can you tell a $1 bill apart from a $20 bill with your eyes closed? For that matter, can you even be sure it is in fact a bill? If you're vision-impaired it can be difficult or impossible to distinguish US paper currency of different denominations. Unlike just about every other Western country, all of our bills are the same size, same color (excluding some recent changes to keep the North Korean government's counterfeiters at bay), and same texture. The inability to distinguish between paper currency denominations makes the vision-impaired extremely vulnerable in cash transactions; they can easily tender too much money or receive too little change. Prof. Otis Stephens at UT College of Law explained this poignantly: I cannot emphasize enough the feelings of insecurity and vulnerability which I experience whenever I engage in currency transactions, due to my inability to distinguish between denominations.”

The American Council of the Blind sued and won in district court over the Treasury's objections to the cost and bother of having to change the currency. Now the D.C. Circuit has upheld the district court. Treasury may yet appeal, but money might look and feel very different in coming years.

Frankly, as someone who is not vision impaired, more easily distinguishable bills will make me feel much more comfortable dealing with cash--I won't having that nagging worry that I handed the cabbie a $20 instead of a $10.

Curiously, the dissent seemed particularly concerned with the impact on third-parties, like vending machine makers, if the currency were changed. That strikes me as quite strange--isn't this a problem every time the currency is updated. I know there are still plenty of machines that won't take the new $20s. This just strikes me as a known risk of being in the vending machine business. My own interest in this is from the payments side; disability law is not my field. I'm curious if in a disability law case like this brought against the government the court is supposed to consider third-party externalities.

Posted by Adam Levitin on May 20, 2008 at 10:53 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink

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Comments

Mary, I think the article addresses some of the concerns you raise in your first comment. Among other points, Prof. Emens suggests that because courts deciding ADA cases consider costs imposed by accommodations on third parties, they should consider third party benefits as well. Note that this would actually work to the advantage of disabled Americans, by putting a thumb on the scale in favor of various accommodations.

As for your second comment, it seems to me that even if there's not complete congruence, some of the discussion in Emens' article might apply to Rehab Act cases. For example, the article discusses Vande Zande at some length, and the DC Circuit decision cites Vande Zande to support its consideration of third-party costs (i.e., cites Vande Zande in a way that is directly on point to how Emens discusses it in her article).

I agree with you, however, that conceptually, taking third parties into account when considering ADA questions seems problematic. (As Emens' article says, "This is the Americans with Disabilities Act--not the Americans Act.") I think Emens discusses this in her article, and, unlike either you or Emens, I'm far from an expert in this area, so I probably should stop with my substantive comments and just suggest that folks read the article and decide for themselves!

Posted by: Sarah L. | May 25, 2008 7:33:56 PM

Here is another problem: the first commenter fails to appreciate that Title I ADA employer cases do not necessarily determine the outcome in a Rehabilitation Act case or even an ADA case brought under Titles II and/or III. The ADA's Title I jurisprudence is not an interchangeable end-all be-all in all cases, but instead, in many cases not brought specifically under Title I of the ADA, ADA Title I simply has no application. The first commenter may wish to note that Title I of the ADA is predicated on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Titles II and III of the ADA are predicated on the Rehabilitation Act thus the latter three are interpreted similarly while the former is not.

Posted by: Mary | May 25, 2008 2:03:35 AM

How nice that we have a little foo foo dust article likely written by an able-bodied about how 3rd parties are supposed to be considered in the equation. I guess that's just another try at watering down access to disabled Americans they really need. But the plain language of the statutes and regs only look to the undue burden on the entity, not any touchy feely fears of 3rd parties who happen to somehow indirectly or incidently be affected.

Posted by: Mary | May 25, 2008 1:48:40 AM

Elizabeth Emens has a great article on just this topic that is forthcoming in Penn Law Review. You can get a copy of it here. It is primarily about accommodations' benefits to third parties, a topic that you refer to in your post but that courts have entirely overlooked, but she also discusses the current approach to third-party costs.

Posted by: Sarah L. | May 21, 2008 7:31:18 AM

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