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December 14, 2006

The blind and the vending machine industry

The Bush administration is fighting proposed changes to US currency to make it easier for blind people to identify. Why? Because the preferences of the vending machine industry outweigh American citizens' right to read their own money.

I blogged about this yesterday, and I was surprised at how many comments people left. Some posters felt that I was underrating the concerns of the vending machine industry.

Obviously, some proposed changes to the money are empirically better solutions than others. Careful empirical study is needed to come up with the best solution, and the government should be consulting with industry groups during this process.

Nevertheless, as I wrote in comments, our physical currency exists for people to use--blind people included. Our money is a token-system technology that must be accessible, just like public buildings.

Vending machine operators are competing for our money. It's their responsibility to configure their machines so that they can take our nation's currency. It's not our responsibility to coddle their outdated technology. Vending machine companies know that if they don't set up their machines right, we'll just buy our sodas at the corner store, or go without.

If these vending machine companies can't change with the times, so to speak, screw 'em.

My remarks sparked this comment from Branden Berg:

You're missing the point. It's not about what's good or isn't good for the vending machine industry. Ultimately, we're the ones who pay their bills, so anything that creates unnecessary work for them hurts all of us.

This is a problem that can be solved two ways. One is for all of us to adapt our conventions to the needs of the blind. The other is for the blind to adapt to our conventions.

There's no moral imperative to solve it one way or another. The guiding principle is that we should try to find the most efficient solution. With some things, it's easy for us to adapt, but hard for the blind to adapt. With other things, the reverse is true.

As mentioned in the article, there are portable devices that allow the blind to distinguish between different bills. There are also non-cash alternatives, which I have no problem using pretty much exclusively. A generation ago, before we had these technologies, it would have been different, but now I don't see that this imposes any serious hardship on the blind, and the government could probably buy these devices for every blind person in the country for less than it would cost to transition to different-sized bills.

You can argue that I'm overestimating the cost of reconfiguring vending machines and/or underestimating the burden our currency imposes on the blind. And you may well be right. But to be worth anything, your argument has to be based on cost-benefit analysis. Knee-jerk self-righteousness and inflammatory rhetoric are vastly inferior substitutes.

On the contrary, there is a moral imperative is to make our currency user-friend for the visually impaired. Blind people shouldn't have to rely on special gadgets to check their change. If it comes to the gizmo stage, the currency is badly designed, period.


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I am in 100% agreement with you on this one Lindsay. My friend and I were discussing this the other day when we first saw this story come out. He has a blind uncle and I used to volunteer a home for the blind when I was in high school. The needs of the blind need to be addressed. Screw the vending machine industry. They can conform.

My fear is always that there are people out there who are so immoral and evil, that they would try to screw over blind people who may not know which bill they have out. If the money is easily identifiable for the blind, that won't be able to happen.

If an "efficient solution" is what we are seeking, we need only look to the Nazis. If efficiency is the criterion, unbounded by notions of right, ethics, or morality, we might as well just shoot them. That would solve the currency problem efficiently.

How is slaughtering people efficient? Think of all the violated preferences!

A change would hurt SOME vending machine companies.

It's also going to provide a huge boost to companies that quickly step in to manufacture the new vending machines or figure out ways to retrofit existing ones. A lot of entrepeneurs are going to be quite happy if such a change went through, because they can make a lot of money off it. And they'll need to hire people as well.

I don't see why currency that blind people can distinguish would necessitate the vending machine industry changing their machines. I'm certainly no expert, but why does it have to be one or the other?

I think this is really just about how conservatives expect people with special needs to make a special effort to get by, rather than for everyone else to make a small effort to try to help those with special needs function like the rest of us. Being blind is their problem, why should the rest of us have to deal with it? That is a big part of the fundamental nature of conservativism.

The vending machine companies in Europe have no fricking problem with the different-sized, different-textured bills there. This is no burden on the vending machine companies: the technology exists and is well tested. They're just too lazy to examine what's done outside their own offices.

Wasn't the vending machine industry interested in seeing the dollar coin succeed for once? They'd love to not have to read our crumpled up notes. I had a friend who worked as an engineer for a juke box company for a little bit. Trying to read bills was the worst thing. Getting rid of dollar bills & we'd have one bill less.

If an "efficient solution" is what we are seeking, we need only look to the Nazis.

The Nazis were an incredibly inefficient regime. They were good at cataloguing mass murder, sure, but any regime that adopted Keynesian economics in 1933, ran massive deficits beginning in 1935 to pay for a war, and still lagged behind Britain in living standards in 1939 is grossly inefficient.

I'm with Berg on the fact that there's really no argument against looking at this from the standpoint of a cost/benefit analysis (as evidence, note LB's [uncharacteristic] lack of an argument in response) and with LB (I think) that the costs to the vending machine industry here are really minimal. ([and to make fun of my profusion of parentheticals I might as well add that] I am with aeroman that arthur is the most incompetent troll ever.

to get back to the basic, methodological point, if we shouldn't be looking at this from an efficiency standpoint, I want to see a much better (which is to say, a) deontological argument of some sort--that there is some sort of ethical imperative to equalize the experiences of the blind with those of the sighted, whatever the cost, to the extent possible. But that, of course, is absurd; anyone who argued that we should provide every blind person with a person to wander around and describe things to them (perhaps a poet around sunset, etc) would be laughed out of the room.

That said, my inclination is to agree that the gizmo isn't a very efficient solution.

final thoughts:

1) what nobody seems to be mentioning (although I didn't read the comments in the last thread) is that opponents of this change are rather obviously, I think, taking a basically conservative position, i.e. currency has nostalgic and patriotic value, and should not be modified unecessarily. I'd be sort of sympathetic to that view, if I didn't have a pink $20 bill in my wallet right now.

2) I don't use vending machines a whole lot, but the only ones I can think of that routinely get bills other than one-dollar bills are NYC metrocard machines. Do people really pay for a can of coke or a candy bar with a $20? Or even a $5? That's a hell of a lot of quarters...if I'm right, it follows that there would be very little dislocation to the vending machine industry if we gave each bill a different size, as long as we kept the $1 as it is.

3) I would think that if money is easier to distinguish by the blind, it will be at least as much easier to distinguish by vending machines. Thus in the long run, to the extent lots of machines take fives, tens and twenties, no doubt any change would be beneficial. It's just a question of transition costs, and I have very little patience for arguments against change based merely on transition costs.

blind people also have a very hard time using the internet.

Money that is easier to read by the blind is likely to also be harder to fake. I can differentiate a canadian twenty from a ten because there is slightly raised lettering on the extra large numbers. People with reduced vision can read them, people with only colour sensitive eyes can tell them apart by colour and the raised letters follow the contours of the numbers and so can be read by touch. All the different design decisions help the blind but were put in place to reduce counterfeitting.
Two problems solved with one solution and the money didn't change size or shape.

I'm not against cost/benefit analysis in general. I'm against the idea that blind people should have to be dependent on special gizmos to handle money that sighted people handle effortlessly--especially since the technology exists to make bills as effortlessly legible to them as they are to us. As other countries have found out, these technologies are compatible with vending machines.

These hypothetical currency reader devices would be a chronic inconvenience. Imagine having to carry the damned thing around and whip it out every time you want to buy a magazine or pay the pizza delivery guy, or whatever. Gizmos get lost, they break, they're never going to be as convenient as just being able to see or feel what kind of money you've got.

If we decide that we need to change the money to help visually impaired people, the vending machine industry can adapt. They don't have any special right to have the currency held static for their convenience. People don't usually think of the mint as being a public amenity, but it is. Public services should be dispensed in an accessible manner. It's not fair that the money's printed just for sighted people. Blind people pay taxes, too.

Coins. Good for the Romans, good for us. Good for the sighted, good for the blind.

Think coins. No gizmos needed.

Coins: good for the sighted, good for the blind, irritating as hell on top of keys, a cell phone, a lighter, a treo, and everything else I've got to carry in my pockets all the time


Yeah, but they don't have to be very heavy, and if the penny was whacked and the nickel made the size of the penny or whereabouts the govt could save money and we'd all have a more rational system.

Throw out the lighter. Smoking's bad for you. See, I saved you money already.

(Damn, accidentally posted the following in the previous section on this subject. Probably some sort of netiquette violation to paste up the same comment twice, but I’m doing it anyway.)

Hardly an expert, but doesn’t the Americans With Disabilities Act apply here? I’m not sure the mint or the vending machine owners have a choice.

As baby-boomers age, diabetes and macular degeneration will increase the proportion of the blind. Another source of newly blind folks is the combination of improvised explosive devices, body armor and rapid battlefield evacuation that delivers wounded rather than dead soldiers from Iraq.

Tell the old folks and combat vets that “efficiency” and the needs of vending machines trumps any need the blind among their ranks might have. I’m sure they’ll see the light.

An interesting note:

Most vending machines that need to take bills need to take 1s. It wouldn't surprise me if most of them didn't need to accept any higher denomination. We could leave the 1s alone, and that would take a lot of the burden off of them. Sure, there are lots (parking authorization vendors) that need to take higher bills, but, you know, I'm betting that with care and foresight, we could make our bills *easier* for the vending machines to handle by giving them more distinctive markers... there'll be an up-front cost, but there might be a greater return in the long run.

...there are lots (parking authorization vendors) that need to take higher bills...

And then there's the whole issue of blind drivers.

my question is whether you favor a cost/benefit analysis here--i.e. should we determine whether to change our currency in consideration of the blind by analyzing what it would cost and how much of a benefit it would confer? From the post, it certainly seems that you do not, but I don't understand why.

To step back for a moment, I believe that the ADA standard, which is really driving this debate, is "reasonable accomodation--" where a disability creates a structural damage, society should require remedies to the extent that they do not impose unreasonable costs. So even if you think there is a moral imperative, ultimately I think you're whistling in the dark unless you do a cost/benefit analysis here.

My claim is that I strongly suspect that applying a cost/benefit analysis would make it pretty clear that we should change the currency.

That said, a) I'm no economist, and b) I think the best argument against that sort of analysis is the impossibility of quantifying values such as nostalgia and patriotism--and because they are unquantifiable, they tend to get ignored (I mention this because generally the debate goes the other way, and tends to screw progressives--values such as human dignity and equality tend to get thrown under the wheels for a quarter point of GDP growth on a regular basis)

Vending machines are able to detect differences in paper money as it is. If technology can make cameras, TV's and phones small enough to fit into an ear or a pocket, then why cannot there be a portable curency reader that speaks? Greeting cards can sing and speak. Phones can play music. Jeez! This is a no-brainer. For the price of redesigning the whole mint we could furnish every blind person who wants one a device for every place one might be needed, personal or private. Heck, they might even be disposable. Will somebody please start thinking out of the box?

This is a great opportunity for the right entrepreneur. Failing that, then let's follow up with a political remedy.

Don't like gizmos? What then shall we do about hearing aids, canes, walkers, motorized wheel chairs, dental bridges and corrective lenses? (Then there's arch supports, key chains, nail clippers, dental floss, CD players, GPS toys, smoke get the idea. Gizmos are not a mark of punishment. They are a means of convenience to those who want or need them.)

They made a good point when discussion this at Same Facts some time ago -- money easier for the blind to use is also easier for US to use. How many people have had to tell a clerk that you gave them a $20, not a $10, or something similar? Happens to me all the time.

Bills like they have in Australia, Europe, or wherever else would cut down on that a lot. It would be easier for EVERYONE.

I think the legal tradition is to force businesses to operate with the currency we have, not the one they want.

Regardless, this is not a small issue. One of the most distressing parts of being blind, if not the most distressing part, is that your independence is severely compromised. A good friend of mine had a car accident nearly a decade ago, and she hit her head on the steering wheel when she hit a tree. Which left her blind. She said of everything she lost then, the biggest thing was her sense of autonomy. After about 5 months of blindness, she finally decided if she couldn't regain some of her independence back, she would probably kill herself. And she made a stew, which took her like 4 hours to do, fumbling around in the dark to find all the ingredients and chop them up without cutting herself, etc. But after that, she figured that if she could do that, then her lot would be a lot more bearable.

Now, in situations where the blind person can learn to go by feel or sound, it's still difficult, as my friend's example with the stew shows. But money is impossible. Autonomy isn't small, but the difference between living a life worth living and not, as my friend's example shows.

Weirdly, though, she gained her sight back a couple months after she decided to deal with her handicap. Complete freak thing; the doctor told her later that the odds of a complete recovery like hers (or almost---I tease her because she can't stand bright lights or too much visual stimulation still) was like 10% at the most. She's the only person I've ever known personally to have a journey there and back, and the fact that she definitively says the hardest part of it was the autonomy issue speaks volumes to me.

What Nerode says above about European vending machines. Plus most companies operate internationally, so they *already* have the technology to hand to do this. This is a technical non-issue that is being inflated for political purposes only.

Heck, even if you have perfect vision, American currency is a pain if you come from somewhere where different denominations are different sizes / colours - i.e. anywhere else in the world. Making all denominations the same size and colour is just plain stupid.

Isn't blindness caused by masturbation? So if we make it possible for blind people to function, how are we going to stem the onanistic tide!

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