By Ed Reiter

It’s said that justice is blind.

That was my feeling – quite literally – when I first learned several years ago of a federal ruling by a District Court judge ordering the U.S. Treasury Department to begin developing new paper money to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired. Specifically, Judge James Robertson, sitting in the District of Columbia, directed the Treasury to vary the sizes and colors of different currency denominations so sight-deprived Americans could identify them more readily.

“Of the more than 180 countries that issue paper currency,” he noted in his ruling in November 2006, “only the United States prints bills that are identical in size and color in all their denominations.”

In May 2008, a federal appeals court agreed with Judge Robertson – and although the final outcome remains unclear, it no longer seems unreasonable to think this case might change the shape and size of future U.S. currency.

My initial reaction – and that of other people I spoke with, in and out of the hobby – was that Judge Robertson’s brand of justice was not only blind but also dumb. After all, our nation has gotten along fine with same-size, same-color paper money for longer than any of us have been around to use it.

Then I read a perceptive article written for COINage, the magazine I edit, looking at the subject from the viewpoint of a man who had been blind for most of his 60 years. And it literally opened my eyes to a situation I never had thought about much.

I have had eye problems myself in recent years; they required removal of cataracts from both of my eyes a few years ago. But those were merely minor inconveniences compared with the difficulties encountered every day by people who have lost all or most of their vision. And avoiding costly confusion in the use of paper money is a very significant concern for those who must deal with this handicap.

“Blind people depend on other people to help them identify their currency, and that’s just craziness,” a blind Las Vegas businessman told the COINage writer, Dom Yanchunas. “Do people take advantage of the blind? Yes. Cabdrivers shortchange you. I’ve had retail clerks who will do it deliberately.

“What’s sad is the United States, in our infinite wisdom and technological power, still refuses to address this issue.”

The businessman was a member of the American Council of the Blind, the advocacy group whose lawsuit led to Judge Robertson’s ruling. He told COINage that revamping of U.S. currency is desired by most visually impaired Americans.

“It’s a major concern to the blind, for obvious reasons,” he said.

The businessman happened to be a coin collector, so he knew about the history of our nation’s paper money. He knew, for example, that there are precedents for varying the size of different-value notes: It was done with both Continental currency in Colonial days and fractional currency during the Civil War.

Here’s where the situation gets dicey – for while the businessman’s advocacy group is aggressively pursuing revision of the nation’s paper money, an even larger organization of blind Americans, the 50,000-member National Federation of the Blind, opposed Judge Robertson’s decision.

The federation’s president said the ruling was “dangerous and wrong” because, in his view, it created the impression that blind people are helpless.

“The blind are not barred from using U.S. paper money because of the way it is designed,” he said. “This ruling misinterprets the meaning of discrimination. It also implied that the blind are not capable of looking out for our own best interests and that the whole world must be modified for our protection.

“If it is allowed to stand unchallenged,” he said, “this ruling will do real harm to the blind by making our goal of full and equal participation in society virtually impossible to achieve.”

These contentions would be much more persuasive if the group had not been in a position to derive millions of dollars from a U.S. coin program then in the planning stages – giving it strong incentive to maintain friendly relations with the Treasury.

Congress had authorized (and the Mint has since issued) a 2009-dated commemorative silver dollar marking the bicentennial of the birth of Louis Braille, the Frenchman who devised the Braille reading and writing system for the blind. Maximum mintage was 400,000, and the National Federation of the Blind was scheduled to receive $10 for every coin sold by the Mint, giving it a potential windfall of $4 million for use in promoting Braille literacy.

Braille literacy is certainly a worthwhile cause – but the paper money makeover sought by the other advocacy group sounds equally worthwhile.

And it would be a shame if an influential national organization was sitting this one out – or, even worse, actively opposing a reform that would help many visually impaired Americans – because it was afraid of rocking a boat filled with money of the good old-fashioned kind.