Access to Paper Currency by Visually Impaired Individuals: The American Council of the Blind v. Paulson
Access to Paper Currency by Visually
Impaired Individuals: The American
Council of the Blind v. Paulson
Updated October 15, 2008
American Law Divsion
Access to Paper Currency by Visually
Impaired Individuals: The American
Council of the Blind v. Paulson
In May 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
issued a decision in The American Council of the Blind v. Paulson. The court held
that under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Treasury Department
of the U.S. government discriminates against blind and visually impaired individuals
through the issuance of currency in denominations which are not readily
distinguishable by touch. The Treasury Department did not file an appeal of the
decision, and the case was remanded to the United States District Court for the
District of Columbia to address the American Council of the Blind’s request for
injunctive relief. The House Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary
Policy, Trade, and Technology held a hearing on this issue on July 30, 2008. This
report discusses the court of appeals’ decision and factors and viewpoints by affected
parties that may have implications for a proposed remedy.
American Council of the Blind v. Paulson..........................2
The Lack of Meaningful Access..............................4
The Secretary Does Not Bear an Undue Burden..................5
Implications for a Legal Remedy..................................6
Access to Paper Currency by Visually
Impaired Individuals: The American
Council of the Blind v. Paulson
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 19732 prohibits discrimination against
an otherwise qualified individual with a disability solely by reason of disability in any
program or activity receiving federal financial assistance or under any program or
activity conducted by an executive agency or the U.S. Postal Service.3 The stated
purpose of the Rehabilitation Act is to ensure that individuals with disabilities can
be independent and fully participate in society.4 The act seeks empowerment of
individuals with disabilities by maximizing “employment, economic self-sufficiency,
independence, and inclusion and integration into society, through ... the guarantee of5
equal opportunity.” The Department of Treasury, however, is not required to take
actions that would result in a fundamental alteration of a program or in undue6
financial and administrative burdens in order to comply with the act.
A 1995 National Research Council study concluded that an important aspect of
an individual’s ability to fully participate in society is “being able to conveniently and
confidentially exchange currency in everyday transactions, as when using public
transportation or making purchases.”7 However, “U.S. citizens with low vision
experience a uniquely difficult task in that U.S. banknotes are remarkably uniform
1 This report originally was prepared by Sadena Thevarajah, Law Clerk.
2 29 U.S.C. §794.
3 For a discussion of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, see CRS Report
RL34041, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Prohibiting Discrimination Against
Individuals with Disabilities in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Assistance, by
Nancy Lee Jones.
4 29 U.S.C. §701(b)(1).
5 29 U.S.C. §701(b)(1).
6 31 C.F.R. §17.150(a)(2).
7 Finding from a report issued by the National Research Council of the National Academy
of Sciences. The report was commissioned by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, to
which the Secretary of the Treasury has delegated his responsibilities for currency. See
COMM. ON CURRENCY FEATURES USABLE BY THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED, NAT’L RESEARCH
COUNCIL, CURRENCY FEATURES FOR VISUALLY IMPAIRED PEOPLE 1(Nat’l Acad. Of
Sciences 1995). Accessed at [http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309051940].
in size, color, and general design.”8 This difficulty affects more than 3.7 million
Americans who are visually impaired and more than 200,000 who have no vision,
according to a 1995 estimate.9
Although the Supreme Court has required any interpretation of Section 504 to
give effect to the statutory objectives of ensuring the independence and full
participation of individuals with disabilities within society, the Court has also
established a countervailing interest in keeping Section 504 within manageable
bounds.10 For example, in Alexander v. Choate, the Court held that Section 504 did
not require a state to go so far as to alter its definition of the Medicaid benefit
because individuals with disabilities have greater medical needs. The Court in Choate
observed that Section 504 requires even-handed treatment and an opportunity for
individuals with disabilities to participate and benefit from programs receiving
federal funds. “The Act does not, however, guarantee the handicapped equal results
from the provision of state Medicaid, even assuming some measure of equality of
health could be constructed.”11 Similarly, other federal and state court decisions have
held that violations to Section 504 would not be present when the remedy would
result in an undue burden.12
American Council of the Blind v. Paulson
Overview. In 2002, the American Council of the Blind, along with two
individuals with visual impairments (collectively “the Council”), filed suit against
the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. The Council alleged that U.S.
paper currency violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It sought declaratory
and injunctive relief to prohibit the Secretary from continuing to manufacture notes
greater than $1 in their present format and to require the Secretary to create and
implement a corrective action plan.13 The Secretary responded by denying the
allegation of a violation and defended the Treasury’s practices, claiming that
adherence with the Council’s recommendations would be unduly burdensome. The
district court held that the Secretary was in violation of the act. However, the court,
while acknowledging the Secretary’s violation, withheld from electing the
appropriate alternative or design change to bring the Secretary within compliance.
Instead, it ordered a status conference with both parties for the purpose of discussing
10 Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 299 (1985).
11 Id. at 304.
12 See Wood v. Omaha School District, 985 F. 2d 437(8th Cir. 19930; Strathie v. Dept. of
Transportation, 716 F.2d 227 (3d Cir. 1983); Boelman v. Manson Bank, 522 N.W.2d 73
13 Congress has prohibited the Treasury from redesigning the $1 bill. See Consolidated
Appropriations Act, 2008, P.L. 110-161, sec.6, div. D, tit. I, § 113, 121 Stat. 1844, 1978
any remedy. In May 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia, in a 2-1 split decision, upheld the district court’s ruling.14
The U.S. court of appeals held that the Secretary’s “failure to design, produce
and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired
individuals” violates Section 504.15 The court reasoned that the Council had
established that individuals with visual impairments lack meaningful access to
currency and that the Council had provided facially reasonable methods for currency
redesign which would provide meaningful access to those populations.16 The court
concluded that the Secretary of the Treasury did not demonstrate that implementation
of every method proposed by the Council would result in an undue burden for the
The court came to its decision by assessing the four necessary criteria used to
determine whether a program or agency is in violation of Section 504.18 The four
criteria plaintiffs must establish are (1) they are disabled within the meaning of the
Rehabilitation Act; (2) they are otherwise qualified; (3) the program or activity in
question is carried out by a federal executive agency or with federal funds; and (4)
they were excluded from, denied the benefit of, or subject to discrimination under the
program or activity.
Three of the four elements were self-evident in this case,19 and the Secretary
focused his arguments on the remaining element of exclusion, denial of benefits, or
discrimination under the program. The Secretary maintained that individuals with
visual impairments have meaningful access to currency as required by Section 504,
and therefore there is no exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination present. He
further asserted an affirmative defense, stating that if discrimination were found,
14 The dissenting judge opined that this case was not yet ripe to be heard by the court of
appeals since a final judgment with an appropriate remedy had not been determined by the
lower court. Am. Council of the Blind v. Paulson, 525 F.3d 1256, 1274 (D.D.C. 2008).
15 Id. at 1256.
16 The Council identified a variety of accommodations “relating to the color, size, and shape
of paper currency as well as the addition of a durable tactile feature, such as embossed dots,
foil, micro-perf, and raised intaglio printing....” Id. at 1261. The court held that the
accommodations are facially reasonable since other countries have adopted them; the
Secretary did not suggest how each was not feasible; and, the costs of some are of similar
magnitude to the costs of current redesigns. See Id. at 1259.
17 Id. at 1271.
18 Id. at 1266.
19 The three elements are considered to be self-evident because (1) Section 504 defines an
individual with a disability as “any individual who ... has a physical ... impairment which
substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities.” The term physical
impairment includes visual impairments. (2) An individual with a visual impairment is able
to meet the currency program’s requirement of being a purchaser, “in spite of his handicap.”
See Davis, 442 U.S. at 406. (3) The court stated that it has tended to give “program or
activity” an expansive meaning. Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1266 n. 13.
accommodating the visually impaired in the manners suggested by the Council would
impose an undue burden on the Treasury.20
The Lack of Meaningful Access. The first part of the Secretary’s
argument, that visually impaired individuals already enjoy meaningful access to
currency, is complicated by the lack of legal precedence to establish a definition of21
“meaningful access.” Here, the court determined that a lack of meaningful access
is likely to exist where plaintiffs can identify obstacles impeding access.22 The
Council sought to remove an obstacle that visually impaired individuals confront in
using paper currency for everyday transactions. The Secretary argued that individuals
with visual impairments have removed any obstacles through coping mechanisms,
which provide them with all the access required by Section 504. These mechanisms
include asking sighted persons for assistance during a transaction, using a portable
electronic reader to identify bills, or by keeping differing denominations folded in
distinct ways so that each could be distinguishable by touch. Another mechanism
mentioned was through cashless payment, such as with credit and/or debit cards, so
that the blind could still enjoy autonomy in sales transactions without being hindered
by uniform bills.
The appellate court affirmed the district court’s finding that these coping
mechanisms were not adequate because it reasoned that no meaningful access exists
if an individual with a visual impairment cannot accurately identify money without23
assistance. The court likened the Secretary’s arguments regarding coping
mechanisms to “contending that merely because the mobility impaired may be able
either to rely on the assistance of strangers or to crawl on all fours in navigating
architectural obstacles, ... they are not denied meaningful access to public24
buildings.” The use of the electronic reader was rejected as a means of meaningful
access since the reader costs $270 and is not always accurate.25 Bills folded according
to denomination can help an individual distinguish between them through touch at
the time of the transaction, but the method still requires a sighted person’s
20 Permitted as an affirmative defense under 31 C.F.R. §17.150 (a)(2).
21 See Am. Council of the Blind v. Paulson, 463 F. Supp.2d 51 (D.D.C. 2006); Am.Council
of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1267.
22 Id. Alternatively, meaningful access is not likely to exist where the plaintiffs want to
expand or alter the scope of the program. Id.
23 The Secretary challenged this holding on appeal, claiming that the district court did not
have a legal basis for concluding that the identification must occur without assistance. The
court held that government-provided interpretive services (such as portable currency
readers) might be sufficient as meaningful access, but there are no such affordable, accurate
interpretive services currently available. The assistance instantly available is either through
the “kindness of strangers” or expensive, unreliable equipment, neither of which provide
proper access. Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1270-71.
24 Id. at 1269.
25 Even if the electronic readers were accurate, they would still not suffice as meaningful
access because of their cost. The ability of an individual to spend money on aides in order
to fully participate in society does not overcome lack of access. See Rothschild v.
Grottenthaler, 907 F.2d 286, 291 (2d Cir. 1990).
confirmation of the bill’s value before it can be folded appropriately. Even cashless
methods could similarly require a sighted person’s assurance that the receipt bears
the correct charge.26 Furthermore, the court concluded that utilizing these
mechanisms might allow individuals with visual impairments to make purchases, but
they would still deny them access to entry-level jobs that require even minimal cash
t ransact i ons. 27
The Secretary Does Not Bear an Undue Burden. Under Section 504,
a program or activity is not obligated to accommodate an individual with a disability
when the means required for accommodation would be unduly burdensome.28 The
test to determine if something is unduly burdensome is one that requires a
comparison of the resources of the defendant to the cost of the accommodations that29
are required for compliance with Section 504. Here, the Secretary argued that the
district court erred when it categorically denied that compliance with the Council’s30
recommendations would not constitute an undue burden for the Treasury. In
particular, the Secretary contended that the most expensive accommodation should
have constituted an undue burden. The court rejected this claim, stating that “liability
under Section 504 requires only that the least burdensome accommodation not be31
unduly burdensome.” The court found that the Secretary did not demonstrate why
each of the facially reasonable accommodations offered by the Council would be
burdensome; he had only attempted to demonstrate why the accommodations as a
whole would be burdensome.32 Applying that standard, the appellate court held that
the district court was correct in its ruling: the accommodations could be categorically
accepted as not constituting an undue burden since the least burdensome
accommodations were not unduly burdensome.
In reaching its conclusion, the court relied in part on the practice of currency
systems worldwide. The Secretary did not address why any of the accommodations
practiced in the 180 other countries that issue paper currency were infeasible in the
United States.33 The court also placed emphasis on the lack of accurate evidence
regarding the burden of cost. The Secretary provided figures for the redesign of all
currency, including $1 bills, which would not be included in the proposed alteration
26 Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1270.
28 See cases cited supra note 12.
29 Id. at 1271 n. 18.
33 In the district court, the Secretary argued that the Council’s recommendations would make
it more to difficult for the Treasury to prevent counterfeiting. The court held that contention
to be unsupported by evidence and that other countries have used these same
recommendations in order to combat counterfeiting. Am. Council of the Blind v. Paulson,
remedy.34 Since $1 bills account for nearly half the bills that are printed,35 the costs
offered as being associated with redesign were found to be inflated.36 Also, the
Secretary had suggested that the shorter life span of the redesigned bills would
increase costs, yet he failed to provide statistically significant data on this issue.37
Finally, the court ruled that the similarity between the costs of some of the proposed
accommodations, by the Secretary’s own estimates, and the costs of recent paper
currency redesigns (to prevent counterfeiting) provided support for financial
The Secretary further contended that altering the size of U.S. currency would
place an undue burden on third parties, such as vending machines, cash processors,
change machines, and cash registers. The court rejected the Secretary’s argument on
two grounds: that the effect of the remedy on third parties is usually not considered,
and that the Secretary failed to demonstrate the severity of the burden that each
redesign would place on the third parties.39
Implications for a Legal Remedy
The Secretary did not appeal the court of appeals decision, and the case was
remanded to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to address
the American Council of the Blind’s request for injunctive relief.40
This section considers several potential issues that might arise in designing an
appropriate remedy to bring the Secretary into compliance with the court of appeals
34 Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1271.
36 Id. Among the estimates offered by the Secretary were, “Including a numeral on each
denomination at least sixty percent (60%) of current note height would cost approximately
$4.5 million and increase the annual cost of currency production by up to $400,000.
Addition of a durable tactile feature would cost between $45 million and $75 million and
increase the annual cost of currency production by between $9 million and $18 million.
Adopting different sizes for each denomination could cost in excess of $200 million.” Id.
at 1263-64 (citations omitted).
37 Id. at 1271.
38 Id. at 1259. “The cost of the 1996 redesign was approximately $34 million and increased
the annual cost of producing currency by over $31 million. The cost for the 2004 redesign
was over $113 million and increased the annual cost of producing currency by more than
$25 million.” Id. at 1272.
39 Id. at 1272-73.
40 Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1274. On July 30, 2008, the House Subcommittee
on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade, and Technology held a hearing on
this issue. See Examining Issues Related to Tactilely Distinguishable Currency,
[http://www.house.gov/ apps/list/hearing/financialsvcs_dem/ hr073008.shtml ].
decision, which would likely be affected by the conflicting points of view within the
community of individuals with visual impairments.41
The district court held that, “any solution that accommodates some, but not all,
individuals with impaired vision is, at best, a half measure.”42 The solutions
suggested by the Council included a wide range of options. The spectrum of
individuals affected by uniform currency likewise spans a wide range, from
individuals with low vision to those with no vision. Among the causes of visual
impairments, two also correlate with decreased tactile ability.43 The correlation
between visual impairments and tactile function presents a more complex issue
regarding an adequate remedy to accommodate all individuals with impaired vision.
If the Secretary is charged with redesigning currency so that individuals with visual
impairments, including the sub-population with decreased tactile function, can gain
meaningful access to it, more than subtle tactile features would have to be
incorporated. It is unclear whether the more involved remedies (such as alterations
in size and shape) will pass the test of undue burden, since none of the proposed
remedies was specifically analyzed using that test.
The adequacy of the remedy may be questioned even further publicly since not
all advocates for the visually impaired agree that there is a lack of meaningful access.
During the appeal, the Secretary had the support of the National Federation of the
Blind (the “Federation”), which filed an amicus brief asserting that the blind
currently have meaningful access to currency. With 50,000 members, the Federation
is the largest organization representing blind and visually impaired individuals.44 The
Federation’s position is that the cost involved in changing U.S. currency is not worth
41 See generally Lauren French LaRochelle, Note, Dollars and Sense: Designing a
Reasonable Accommodation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 69 OHIO ST. L.J.
525 (2008) (discussing the history and respective views of the National Federation of the
Blind and the American Council of the Blind).
42 Am. Council of the Blind, 463 F. Supp. 2d at 59 n. 9. The statement was responding to the
suggestion of adopting measures that would only provide meaningful access to individuals
with low vision. On appeal, the Secretary challenged that holding, claiming that the district
court had impermissibly curtailed the Secretary’s discretion. The appellate court rejected
that contention stating that the district court expressly acknowledged the Secretary’s
discretion in its ruling. Furthermore, the appellate court held that since the Secretary did not
demonstrate that accommodating individuals with no vision would present a uniquely undue
burden, accommodating only those with low vision would not be sufficient to bring him into
compliance of Section 504. Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1273.
43 Diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration are among the four leading
causes of low or no vision. The basis of those impairments, diabetes and advanced age, can
also can lead to decreased tactile function. See Vision Problems in the U.S. (National Eye
Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD), 2002, at 1. Available at
[http://www.nei.nih.gov/eyedata/pdf/VPUS.pdf]; Stevens, J., Foulke, E., Patterson, M.Q.
Tactile Acuity, Aging, and Braille Reading in Long-Term Blindness. Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Applied. Vol. 2, No. 2, 91-106 (1996).
44 The American Council of the Blind reports its membership at 20,000. See Associations
Unlimited(Gale) at [http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/AU?locID=loc_main] for both
the “convenience” that would result from the redesign.45 Furthermore, the Federation
claims that the implication in the ruling that the blind are not capable of managing
cash transactions will negatively prejudice the public’s opinion regarding the
capabilities of the blind in America.46
Conversely, the court’s decision is viewed optimistically by the American
Council of the Blind. Mitch Pomerantz, its president, states that, “This is a
tremendous victory for the [American Council of the Blind] and for every blind and
visually impaired person living in the United States today and in the future. We hope
that the Treasury Department will now sit down with us to come up with a mutually
satisfactory way of making our currency accessible.” The American Foundation for
the Blind (AFB) has similarly lauded the ruling. “This is an important victory for
people who are blind and visually impaired,” said the Director of Public Policy for
AFB. “We applaud the American Council of the Blind for championing this issue,
and look forward to the day when people with vision loss have as reliable access to
paper money as everyone else.”47
In conclusion, despite the court of appeals holding in Paulson, many issues
regarding an appropriate remedy to address discriminatory elements of U.S. currency
45 See Marc Maurer, Is the Failure to Produce Tactile Currency Really a Matter of
Discrimination? Braille Monitor, February 2007, Vol. 50 No. 2. [http://www.nfb.org/
images/nfb/publications /bm/ bm07/bm0702/bm070202.htm] .
46 The President of the Federation stated, “We felt that this kind of presentation would lead
to the assertion that blind people were incapable of participation in commerce without
substantial alteration of the documents or papers involved in financial transactions.” Id.
47 The range of supporters of this decision include the American Association of People with
Disabilities and OurMoneyToo.org, a small advocacy organization dedicated to raising
awareness regarding currency discrimination against individuals with visual impairments.
See [http://www.aapd-dc.org/News/courtdecisions/061129acb.htm] and
[http://www.ourmoneyt oo.org] .