Money Violates Civil Rights Laws, Court Rules

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has just ruled that America’s money bills, such as $1, $10, and $100 bills, discriminate against the blind, in violation of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits the federal government and recipients of federal funds from discriminating against the disabled.

Unlike some foreign currencies, such as the Euro, American money bills don’t vary in size, color, or texture based on denomination, making it harder for blind people to distinguish them.  Blind people often end up folding each denomination differently in order to keep track of them.  

The Rehabilitation Act has been construed to require agencies to make “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled unless doing so would cause “undue hardship.”  The American Council for the Blind argued that it was reasonable to change the bills size or shape or texture, since other countries have been able to do that to their own currency.  The Treasury Department argued in response that redesigning the bills would cause undue hardship by costing it tens of millions of dollars a year in additional printing costs, and increase the risk of counterfeiting (as the de facto international currency, the U.S. dollar is subject to counterfeiting that other currencies are often spared).

The judge has ordered that the bills be redesigned, while leaving the details to the Treasury Department.  He himself concedes that the redesign is likely to cost at least $50 million per year, and judging from the Treasury Department’s protestations, the figure could be a lot higher.

Like other disabilities discrimination laws, the Rehabilitation Act is quite a broad (and vague) law, so the judge’s decision isn’t necessarily wrong (although the Treasury Department’s arguments seem at least as plausible as the judge’s).  Indeed, the law’s concepts, such as “reasonable accommodation” and “undue burden,” are so vague and undefined it’s hard to know exactly what sorts of changes or accommodations it requires for the disabled, or how much institutions are expected to spend to accommodate them. 

No doubt recognizing that vagueness, the judge has taken the unusual step of suggesting that the government appeal his decision immediately rather than waiting for the trial proceedings to finish, since, as he concedes in his ruling, the case “involves a controlling issue of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion.”

The outcome of this case may indirectly affect private businesses and how they can communicate, in writing or through web sites, when they have potential blind customers.  The Rehabilitation Act itself doesn’t apply to most private businesses.   But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which does, is directly modelled on the Rehabilitation Act.  As a result, cases decided under the Rehabilitation Act often end up dictating the result in ADA cases.   

That’s not always a good thing, since it gives no weight to the property rights and autonomy that private businesses, unlike government agencies, enjoy.  It makes perfect sense to require the government to take reasonable steps to accommodate all taxpayers, including the disabled, at some added cost.  But a small business has neither the resources nor the moral obligation to accommodate every conceivable class of would-be customer.