Via Darleen comes an article about a recent judicial decision. It appears that U.S. District Judge James Robertson has decreed that the Federal Government is discriminating against the blind because blind people can not distinguish between different denominations of U.S. paper currency. Thus, the government has denied them “meaningful access” to money.
My problem with this kind of thing is twofold: first, it is not the responsibility of government to ensure that life is “fair”. We are “the land of opportunity”, but that doesn’t make us the “land of whatever I want whenever I want it”. Everyone has obstacles, and once upon a time success came by fighting to overcome those obstacles and excelling at what we can do well. I can’t shoot a basket to save my life. Is the NBA discriminating against me if I apply for a job and they don’t hire me as a player? Well, yes, they are; but it is a completely legitimate and appropriate form of discrimination. I discriminate against a hunk of cheese in my refrigerator by throwing it out if it turns fuzzy. Both my vision and physical strength mean I will never be a star basketball player — who’s discriminating against me? My own physical existence is discriminating against me. Huh. Guess I’d better go into computers instead.
My second issue is the slippery slope concept — if the law is broken every time somebody has lesser access to something because of the limits of their own physical being, where does it end?
Darleen asks when the government is going to give blind people “meaningful access” to the highway system; should they order car manufacturers to make cars the blind can drive? I don’t quite take that view, as the judgement is (in theory, anyway) based on the idea of “reasonable” accommodation. The judge has decided that it would be reasonable for the government to make money of differing sizes, or with raised ink, or with some other feature that the blind could distinguish. But — what happens when they blind guy with nerve damage comes along? He has no sense of touch — should the government flavor our money so he is accommodated? For that matter, what happens when the raised ink wears down?
The article quotes the judge as saying “every other issuer [of money — that is, other countries] includes at least some features that help the visually impaired” . That may be a true statement, except that it implicitly suggests that US currency has no features to help the visually impaired. If you’re in the USA, pull out your wallet right now and take a look at a recently redesigned bill. Flip it over. See that really big plain-font number with plain background in the lower right corner? Seems kind of a odd break in the design of the bill, doesn’t it? That is there for one reason and one reason only: to make the bills easier to distinguish for people with impaired vision.
Beyond that, the blind do have meaningful access to money. Take you cash, hand it to a bank teller. It’s okay, she won’t short you counting it (too many camera pointed her way). You can put that money into an account, and then the bank gives you this thing called a debit card. Voila! Reasonable and meaningful access to your money. Is it absolutely the same as being able to use cash freely? No. But this is about reasonable accommodation. This is about “meaningful access”. A cash card is certainly a reasonable way for the blind to use money. No need to reprint trillions of dollars worth of currency and remanufacture every single ATM, vending machine, and automated register (and wallet!) to handle differently sized bills.
What about a blind person who absolutely must use cash for some reason? Well, let’s take a look at another task that is difficult for the blind: crossing the street. Sighted people have signs that tell them when they should or should not cross a busy street; the blind cannot see those signs. The blind do have access to handheld devices that emit a tone telling them which signal is currently displayed, so that they can cross. Certainly we have the technological ability to make a small handheld scanner (similar to the one in the aforementioned vending machines) that can tell a blind person the denomination of a particular piece of currency? Probably some good money there for the person who designs such a thing.
The point is, there are ways for people to overcome their limitations, and it should not constantly be the responsibility of other people to bend over backwards doing it for them.