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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Access to Paper Currency by Visually Impaired Individuals: The American Council of the Blind v. Paulson

Emily C. Barbour
Legislative Attorney

In May 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision in The American Council of the Blind v. Paulson. The D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s holding that the U.S. Department of the Treasury violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by issuing paper currency in denominations that people with visual impairments cannot readily identify. Specifically, the court ruled that the current design of U.S. banknotes denies people with visual impairments meaningful access to the benefits of using U.S. currency. Furthermore, the Treasury Department was not exempted from liability on the grounds that accommodating the plaintiffs’ disabilities would impose an undue burden. The court found that Treasury failed to substantiate its claims about the financial cost of achieving Section 504 compliance and the poor durability of certain proposed remedial tactile features.

The Department of Treasury did not appeal the circuit court’s decision. The case was remanded for consideration of an appropriate remedy, and, on October 3, 2008, the district court issued an injunction order. The injunction order required the Department of Treasury to make changes to accommodate people with visual impairments by the time the next currency redesign is approved.

On May 20, 2010, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) within the Department of Treasury published a notice of proposed action in the Federal Register. The notice identifies changes that BEP proposes to make to U.S. currency to accommodate people who are visually impaired. These changes are (1) developing and deploying a raised tactile feature as part of the next currency redesign; (2) adding large, high-contrast numerals and different and distinct color schemes to each denomination; and (3) implementing a “Supplemental Currency Reader Program” to provide electronic currency readers to people with visual impairments.

In comments submitted to BEP, the American Council of the Blind expressed concern over the institution of the Supplemental Currency Reader Program. The Council urged BEP, inter alia, to provide specific details about the timelines for implementing the accessible features on the currency itself and establish performance specifications for readers that are distributed through the program. The Council also strongly opposed BEP’s proposed eligibility requirements for the reader program, contending that they unnecessarily restricted the types of professionals who could verify a person’s eligibility for a currency reader. Under the proposed regulation, only certain nurses and doctors would be authorized to verify a person’s eligibility for a currency reader. The Council would like a variety of other professionals to be authorized as well, including social workers and professional staff at hospitals and other institutions.

Date of Report: January 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: R41579
Price: $29.95

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