Update: Which is Most Discriminatory Against Blind Consumers?

Jacob Sullum points (Dec. 19) to a New York Times op-ed piece (Dec. 19) by Marc Maurer questioning the recent decision (last mentioned here by Walter Olson on Dec. 17) holding that U.S. paper currency discriminates against blind money-users.  As Sullum notes:

The piece is puzzling because Maurer is the president of the National Federation of the Blind, which is suing Target for failing to make its website easily accessible to blind people.  Maurer calls the currency case, which is supported by the American Council of the Blind, ‘frivolous litigation’ while characterizing his group’s Target lawsuit as a straightforward application of the nondiscrimination principle.

Eye of the beholder, indeed.


  • Blind people now have a technological alternative to changing the currency; there are pocket-sized bill readers (using the same technology as the bill readers in vending machines) that will tell them the denomination of the currency – and will also tell them if some crook is trying to substitute other paper rectangles for US currency. Without that, the blind have to trust that those they deal with are actually giving them money, which doesn’t seem to me to be more onerous than trusting others as to the amounts.

    A visually-oriented website can be much more of a challenge to a blind person, no matter how well equipped technologically. Reader software reads the words, but can’t help with pictures, and for a blind person selecting links randomly placed around the screen must be very slow and difficult.

    Not that I can think of any changes short of severely limiting the usefulness of a site to the sighted that would put the blind on anywhere near an equal footing with the sighted, but there are simple changes that somewhat ameliorate the problems, and there’s a non-frivolous argument that these changes might be within the “reasonable acommodations” (spelling?) legislated by Congress. OTOH, arguing that currency design has now become illegal under the ADA after more than 20 years seems pretty frivolous to me.

  • Since the suit against Target is naturally ‘not about the money’, then perhaps the blind would propose some constructive means by which a strictly visual medium can be made more accessible. Target has to work with what is available in the Hypertext language for browsers. I don’t think they can change the computer industry standard for this on their own.
    Ultimately equal access may require no access for all. Then we can all glare at the blind and other disabled disapprovingly.

  • “Sorry, the proprietary TargetNet Browser cannot be installed on this operating system. Please upgrade and try again.”

  • According to the NYT op-ed, Maurer’s group is suing Target “because the company’s Web site doesn’t accommodate the special text-reading software that the blind use to surf the Internet.” If true, this goal doesn’t seem to raise the concerns about overreaching that some of the above comments suggest.

  • As a former web developer, let me explain this in really simple terms: the cost of making a site accessible is VERY low (probably approaching 0 if they had hired competent people in the first place) and the tools and techniques have been known for nearly as long as the web has been around. There’s nothing magical.

    This is largely the result of incompetence on the part of the people hired to do the site.

    As to money… it’s been pointed out that a number of the complaints about the cost to make the change have been somewhat trumped up. Of course the cost of a 100% redesign of the currency would be expensive for everyone, but there are other possibility: including tiny braille bits in the corners of bills for one thing wouldn’t change much at all. Particularly if that change was done to the border areas where it wouldn’t interfere with recognition equipment.