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Thompson to Treasury: Stop Discriminating Against the Visually Impaired

New York, NY (June 2, 2008)—New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. today called on the U.S. Treasury to accept the recent decision by a federal appeals court, which found that United States currency discriminates against those with limited vision.

In a letter to Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Thompson urged the U.S. Treasury to embrace the ruling and not appeal it.

"More than 100 countries vary the size of their paper currency, or add other features that can be distinguished by touch, in order to assist those who are sight impaired," Thompson wrote. "For all of our advances, the United States remains virtually alone in the world in its use of currency—in all denominations—that is identical in size. The court's decision should be applauded; it is sensible, forward-thinking and long overdue."

You can view the letter at www.comptroller.nyc.gov.

Thompson was joined by several advocates for people with visual impairments or disabilities, including the American Council of the Blind (the Council), which initiated the lawsuit back in 2002.

"The members of the American Council of the Blind are extremely pleased with the recent court decision upholding Judge Robertson's decision calling for the U.S. Treasury to make paper currency accessible for people who are blind," said Mike Godino, the Treasurer of the Council. "It's time for the United States to get in line with the rest of the world, hopefully the Treasury will conform and decide to move forward for the good of all who are blind."

"The Treasury Department's efforts to make cash identifiable for visually impaired people makes simple common sense," said Adrian Spratt, Trustee at Helen Keller Services for the Blind. "Without different-sized bills or currency machines, blind vendors are easy prey for unscrupulous customers. And as a blind customer, I sometimes encounter sales and delivery people who are anxious at handing me change when I cannot independently tell if it is correct. It is damaging for everyone concerned when daily transactions that ought to be readily verifiable are needlessly transformed into exercises in trust. If all the other 178 countries that issue paper currency can eliminate this uncertainty, why can't we?"

According to Tara A. Cortes, RN, PhD, CEO and President of Lighthouse International, a 103-year-old leader serving people with vision loss, "Our currency does discriminate and it needs to be changed. Most of the currencies of the world are different sizes as well as color for those who have some color vision. Furthermore, as baby boomers get older and diseases like diabetes and macular degeneration increase dramatically, millions more will be affected by vision loss. Changing U.S. currency is long overdue and is the right step to take."

"We applaud the efforts of Comptroller Thompson and the American Council of the Blind in urging the US Treasury to support the federal court ruling that American currency discriminates against the blind and visually impaired," says Joe McNulty, Director of the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. "Having diverse monetary sizes and/or different textures would make money identification much easier for anyone with a vision loss. The issue is particularly significant for people in the deaf-blind community, whose efforts to achieve independence are often stymied by their inability to utilize currency without the assistance of others. We are all aware of the difficulties of retooling the present system. However, citizens who are sensory impaired deserve the same rights of access. Creating a tactile system would allow them to more fully participate in the American economy in a society that highly values an adult's ability to make independent monetary exchanges."

"The decision of the U.S. federal appeals court about the redesign of paper currency should be upheld because it results in an equalizer for people who are blind or visually impaired in managing paper currency," said Alberta Orr, Executive Director of the Disabilities Network of New York City. "People who are blind or visually impaired have the right to manage currency independently without human assistance or the assistance of costly technology such as purchasing specialized high cost paper currency identifiers designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired which read the currency aloud. Human assistance means depending on other people, including merchants to identify the correct denominations without taking advantage of a blind customer."

"Ensuring that all people can participate in society should be a critical concern for our government," said Carl Augusto, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Foundation for the Blind. "We hope the U.S. Treasury will invest in the equality of all Americans by moving immediately to the development and implementation of paper money that is more usable for people who are blind or visually impaired."

By a 2-to-1 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge James Robertson. The appeals court ultimately rejected the Treasury's argument that making currency accessible would impose an undue burden on the government.

A majority decision penned by Circuit Judge Judith W. Rogers upheld the original ruling, which determined that the Treasury Department's failure to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to the visually impaired violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The decision held that visually impaired Americans are denied "meaningful access" to currency, and remanded the case back to district court to address the Council's request for injunctive relief.

The U.S. Treasury can now decide whether to follow the ruling, or it can appeal to either the federal appeals court en banc or the U.S. Supreme Court.

"In addition to correcting a long-standing hardship for the blind and visually impaired, the recent appeals court ruling has the added benefit of expanding the opportunity for entry-level positions for the blind and visually impaired," Thompson added. "The decision also addresses the needs of a rapidly aging population and the debilitating impact of diabetes upon the vision of those within our communities."

According to the American Foundation of the Blind, there are approximately 10 million visually impaired people in the United States; 1.3 million of whom are legally blind. More than half, approximately 5.5 million are senior citizens. Of the numerous countries that issue paper currency, only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and similar in color in all denominations.

"We are obligated to correct the vestiges of poorly conceived policy and on behalf of all New Yorkers, I urge that the Treasury Department embrace the appeals court ruling," Thompson said.

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Contact: Kristen McMahon
(212) 669-2589
kmcmaho@comptroller.nyc.gov

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