Otis Stephens, a 70-year-old University of Tennessee law professor, is blind.
Everyday tasks are often obstacles for Stephens, and surprisingly, the U.S. Treasury Department is one of his biggest barriers.
For more than four years, Stephens, representing the American Council for the Blind, has been the primary plaintiff on a case aimed at making United States currency readily distinguishable for the blind. And in December, Stephens scored a major victory when a judge from the U.S. district courts ruled that our current dollars violate section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The act is a national law that “protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’ve been negotiating with the Treasury since the late 1970s, but in recent years it’s become apparent that we’re not getting anywhere,” Stephens said. “We didn’t want to file a lawsuit, but it became necessary to get results.”
Stephens said that though he has occasionally been cheated, the reason he’s pushing for the change is to increase independence for the blind.
“When I get money, I ask what the bill is and then I fold each bill a certain way. Most people are reliable and trustworthy, but you don’t want to have to rely on someone for every transaction you make. There are battery-powered money identifiers, but they’re expensive and not everyone can afford one.”
Stephens said he would like the Treasury to vary the size of the bills, like the European Union currently does, or add laminated strips to differentiate the bills.
However, Stephens said that because the one-dollar bill is used so often and has such a short life, it wouldn’t need to be changed.
The Treasury has argued against a change because of costs, interference with counterfeiting protections and international recognition of U.S. currency as the dominant medium of exchange.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson said the last two arguments were “unsupported” and “utterly absurd.” Robertson noted the potential cost — $178 for the initial printing and between $37 and $50 for each new printing plate — but didn’t feel it was enough to support shortchanging the visually impaired.
Stephens said the Treasury filed an appeal with the U.S. Appellate court in mid-December, but it would be months or even years before any possible changes were made.
“I’ve been around court decisions long enough to know it’s hazardous to predict the outcome of a lawsuit,” he said. “This could eventually get to the Supreme Court, but it’s highly unlikely. Right now we’re focusing on making our argument to the Appellate court and hoping for the best.”