By JUSTIN BERTON
San Francisco Chronicle
December 12, 2006
"Money has a certain feel to it," Welte said outside the cafe as he thumbed the surface of a crisp greenback. "But all money, no matter how much it's worth, feels the same."
That's a problem that could change soon. The Treasury Department has until Tuesday to respond to a federal judge's ruling that would require the agency to reshape dollars to accommodate the nation's legally blind and an additional 2.3 million low-vision Americans. U.S. District Judge James Robertson agreed with lawyers from the advocacy group American Council of the Blind that the current universal shape for all bills - 6.14 inches by 2.61 inches - violates the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled.
Yet former government officials and vending merchants say redesigning the 37 million currency bills printed each day would be an unduly expensive effort. They argue that the change would force the redesign of hundreds of everyday objects, such as ATMs, cash registers and wallets.
The ruling also is opposed by a larger blind advocacy group, the National Federation of the Blind, which calls the American Council of the Blind's effort "dangerously misguided" in suggesting that blind people are incapable of identifying currency.
Charles Miller, a spokesman at the Department of Justice, said government attorneys hadn't decided yet whether to meet the Tuesday deadline and appeal the decision. If the deadline passes, Miller said the Treasury Department would have 30 days to begin "the accommodation process" that would start the redesign of bills.
"It would be a huge undertaking," predicted Thomas Ferguson, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, who argued against size changes in court. "Everything would have to change - every place where we use money, think about it - solely to accommodate one group of people."
Tom McMahon, senior vice president of the National Automatic Merchandising Association in Chicago, estimated that retuning bill-reading software on the country's 7 million vending machines would cost his industry $560 million.
And it wouldn't affect just his industry, McMahon said, "but every cash drawer in the country."
In court, former director Ferguson estimated the cost of initial investments for new printing presses and plates at $228 million and put additional annual costs at $52 million for paper, ink and labor. He also said $70 million to $90 million would go toward a worldwide education campaign to ensure acceptance of the new currency.
"The cost associated with such a change would put a very large cost on society," Ferguson said, noting that his former agency had funded research to develop hand-held bill readers for the blind. "But if you ask people if they would change bills for the blind, they say yes, of course," Ferguson offered. "If you ask them, 'Do you want your bills to changes sizes?' They say no."
Attorney McMahon, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support the Treasury Department, said he was surprised that other trade associations likely to feel an impact, such as the American Bankers Association and the American Public Transportation Association, did not rally behind the government.
"Then again," McMahon added, "when this came up, there were some people who thought this was so ridiculous, there was no way a judge was going to rule in favor of the blind. Well, surprise."
Welte, who is a member of the American Council of the Blind, will continue with his folding system, but he would prefer that bills be in different sizes, like coins, for easy identification. Each week, he said, a reader visits his condominium and helps him go through his mail and pay bills. She also reads his money to him to make sure he's got as much cash on hand as he thinks.
"Otherwise they're just blank pieces of paper," Welte said. "The money is doing nothing to make it easy."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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