American Blind People's Federation? Feh. We're the Blind People's Federation of America!


In a puzzling New York Times op-ed piece, Marc Maurer objects to a federal judge's ruling that the U.S. government is illegally discriminating against blind people by failing to design paper money so they can distinguish different denominations by touch. 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:

Discrimination occurs when the blind are barred from enjoying benefits, goods or services. This definition of discrimination is what most people understand the word to mean. If a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone because of race, color, creed or disability, then discrimination occurs. Sometimes people with disabilities are barred from certain facilities or services because of the way they are designed. A person in a wheelchair cannot climb the steps of a public building; if the building does not have a wheelchair ramp, that person is prevented from entering it. In another example, my group is suing the Target Corporation because the company's Web site doesn't accommodate the special text-reading software that the blind use to surf the Internet. In both cases, a person with a disability is kept out of a public place or denied use of a service, just as African-Americans were not welcome at whites-only lunch counters.

But while blind people cannot identify paper currency by touch, that does not prevent us from spending money. When we hand merchants our money, they take it and provide us with the goods or services we have paid for, no questions asked. People with whom we transact business provide us with correct change if needed, and we then organize the money in a manner that allows us to identify it in the future. We transact business in this way every day.

By the same logic, the unfriendly design of Target's website does not prevent blind people from buying stuff. They can ask sighted people for assistance in navigating the site (just as they can ask sighted people for help in counting money); they can shop at Target in person; they can even shop at other online stores that are easier to use, voting with their dollars against Target's discriminatory website. By contrast, since the government has a legally enforced monopoly on printing money, blind people can't simply use a competing currency that features raised symbols or different denominations in different sizes (although they can use cash alternatives such as credit and debit cards). I'm not completely convinced that redesigning U.S. currency makes sense, but surely the argument for demanding accommodation of the handicapped is stronger when you're dealing with a government monopoly than it is when you're dealing with one of many competing private companies. Am I missing something? Is there a longstanding feud between the National Federation of the Blind and the the National Council of the Blind?