citybeat (2006-51)

UT Professor Otis Stephens leads lawsuit that may change U.S. currency

Legible Money

Most of the lawsuits filed in U.S. federal courts are critically important to the people who are filing them. Several take a stand on some abstract principle that will affect other cases. But most aren’t likely to affect our lives in any tangible way.

There’s a good likelihood that the case of American Council of the Blind v. U.S. Treasury may be an exception. U.S. District Judge James Robertson, of the District of Columbia, ruled early this month that the United States will have to change the look and, more to the point, the feel of U.S. currency. The fact that paper currency is indistinguishable by touch constitutes a civil-rights issue, specifically a violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Listed as one of two individual plaintiffs on the national lawsuit is the name of Otis Stephens, a UT law school professor. He’s found himself being interviewed on lots of national talk shows lately, and he’s pretty well prepared for the questions.

“We’ve been at this for 25 years,” says Stephens, now 70, who has taught law and, earlier, political science, at UT for decades. Stephens, who is totally blind, is a former president of the American Council of the Blind and a longtime member of its board of directors. He joins the lawsuit as an individual plaintiff on behalf of the totally blind, who he says number about 500,000 in America. (Another plaintiff, Patrick Sheehan, represents the significantly vision-impaired.)

Stephens says blind people tend to come up with their own tricks to distinguish bills. He pulls a bill out of his pocket and says, “That’s a $10 bill, I think.”  It is. He could tell it was because when he got it, he folded it in half. He folds $5s lengthwise, $20s with one end folded down. It works in his wallet, but in identifying bills in the first place, “you’re always dependent on someone telling you what it is. There’s no way to distinguish money by touch.”

Many blind people have an anecdote about being cheated that can make you cringe. Stephens mentions one incident made famous in the recent motion picture, Ray, in which pianist Ray Charles was paid for a $15 gig in three ones. Stephens gets along all right, but he has a story, too. “A few years ago, a cab driver here in town brought me back from the airport. I think I gave him two $20s. He gave me back a couple of $5s. He cheated me out of about $15.

“It rarely happens,” he’s quick to add. “Most people won’t cheat a blind person. But it underscores the dependency of a blind person on the honesty of the person you’re dealing with.” 

Stephens says the United States is in a minority of world nations that have currency of uniform size. Varying size would be one solution, Stephens says, but other possibilities include punched holes, Braille-like indentations, and tangible plastic strips.

He says the plaintiffs are requesting no changes for the $1 bill, and are not prescribing what changes need to be made; just insisting that some change is necessary.

Judge Robertson agreed with Stephens and his allies. In his opinion, Robertson’s assessments of some of the Treasury Department’s case sound like subtle ridicule. One of the government’s points was that changes would undermine U.S. currency as a medium of exchange on a global basis.

“This contention is not only unsupported, but, on its face, fairly absurd,”  Robertson wrote. “If the government has any evidence that U.S. currency is accepted throughout the world because it is a ‘greenback,’ rather than on the strength of the American economy, it has not placed that evidence in the record.”

Surprisingly, some blind activists are resisting the ACB’s recommendation. Stephens is perplexed that the National Federation of the Blind does not support the lawsuit. Some representatives have been quoted saying that they’re “offended” at the assumption that the blind need “special treatment.”  Some use electronic note readers, but Stephens says they’re expensive, cumbersome, and not always reliable. There’s been a proposal to make the readers pocket-sized, and make them available to the blind. “We wouldn’t object to that,” Stephens says. “But it hasn’t been done.”

The government’s biggest objection, Stephens says, is that changing the currency will be expensive. Calling government estimates “outlandish,” Stephens believes improvements can come at five percent or less of the current printing expense. There are also concerns about how it will affect the vending-machine industry, which may be significant, even though most machine vending is done with $1 bills, which Stephens says need no changes.

The Treasury Department has appealed Judge Robertson’s ruling.

Stephens is gratified by the success so far, and determined to go forward. There are already about one million people in America, he says, whose vision is too poor to distinguish a $1 from a $100 bill. “It’s a sizeable population, and as the population ages, that number is increasing,” he says. “Also, a number of people are coming back from Iraq with no eyesight.”

“We’re not asking for damages,” Stephens says, for the years that the government has insisted on tangibly uniform currency, “just that they find a remedy.”

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