Thursday, May 22, 2008

Back To The Salt Mines

A Federal appeals court recently decided that paper money discriminates against the blind. They said that since blind people can't distinguish between the types of bills by feel and have to rely on others (and trust that others will be truthful), the blind are being denied access to currency and are being treated differently than sighted people.

The interesting thing about this case---besides the fact that it may make the U.S. Treasury completely redesign all paper currency---is the fact that advocacy organizations for the blind are divided about whether or not this decision is a good thing. The Council for the Blind, who apparently was a party in filing the litigation, favors redesigning the money. The National Federation for the Blind is not happy about the decision and feels that it will foster stigma against the blind by suggesting that they can't function in society as well as others.

I have to say, I was surprised about the NFB's opinion and didn't expect it, but it got me thinking about disability, discrimination, stigma and mental illness.

The Americans With Disabilities Act bans discrimination against people with physical and mental illnesses who request reasonable accomodation for their disabilities. The mentally ill person must make his or her disability known, and must be otherwise able to perform the duties and responsibilities of the job if the accomodation were made.

The down side of the ADA, as the National Federation for the Blind has pointed out in their legal case, is that mandating accomodation may increase the stigma of having a mental illness by implying that psychiatric patients need a 'leg up' compared to others and are incapable of competing on a level playing field. (Similar arguments were once advanced about anti-discrimination laws for minorities, gays and women.) Nevertheless, I think the ADA is a good thing and is necessary to protect the rights of handicapped workers. It's unrealistic to think that people with mental illness are on an equal footing with people without a diagnosis, even with their condition is completely under control.

Maybe someday psychiatric treatment will be as common and unremarkable as a regular dental visit, but until then we need to be proactive and vigilant about attempts to curb or restrict protections for those with disabitlities.

As for our paper money, I think it's due for an upgrade.
Note from Dinah: Here's an interesting paper on The Unintended Consequences of The Americans With Disabilities Act.
Deleire (the author) makes the point that when people let their disabilities be known, they are less likely to be hired. Since many many people suffer from some psychiatric illness at some point in their lives --probably over half if you include things like anxiety and adjustment disorders. It all gets foggy on what's Reasonable Accommodation and exactly what an employer needs to do fulfill such an act for someone with a psychiatric disorder. My question might be something like, when does society encourage people to be victims, versus when are there simply people with differences. It's not just psychiatry, educators talk about such things all the time with issues of untimed SATs (college entrance tests) for those who can afford testing to officially diagnose a problem/difference--- something that seems to me a clear tilting of the scales in favor of the financially advantaged (the testing costs a ton and is not typically done in public schools for kids with reasonable grades who aren't tanking). It's hard to balance the need for fairness towards those needing some support versus the deleterious effects of having a label.
Sorry to rant on Clink's post. I'll use whatever money they give me.


shraddha said...

Great blog! Very relevant topic.

I know moms of preemies whose children have disabilities due to premature birth.

These are admirable women who are doing their best to make sure their children get best of all possible help and are raising their kids to be strong and not get affected by any stigma.

I consider myself very blessed that my children escaped any long term consequence of prematurity.
But here is a link to a mom's blog.Kara.Mom of triplets.

Two of her sons are legally blind due to Retinopathy of prematurity.They can see things that are very very near but as they grow they will be taught brail.
I admire this woman.She is only 30 but life has given her so many blessings and challenges, that just reading her blog takes my breath away.

Sorry I went toally off topic.
Your talk of blindness triggered this.

Anonymous said...

I am all for redesigning money so that it can be distinguished by the blind. That will also help children, the elderly, those that aren't so bright, and anyone else when they aren't paying close attention.

I just can't imagine anyone ever being able to go to their prospective employer and to ask for special treatment because they are Bipolar! Perhaps an accomodation that would work not just for mental illness but for many conditions would be to require ALL employers to grant unlimited leave without the employee having to specify a reason.

Alison Cummins said...

In Canada we redesign our money regularly to prevent counterfeiting. It’s always been coloured, which is helpful for people with low vision. It’s been embossed with raised lettering and dots for the blind for a while now, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about how pretty coloured bills and embossed numbers give blind people an advantage over sighted people.

Euro bills come in different sizes for different denominations for the same reason.

I don’t see it as special favours for anyone, but a combination of common sense and ordinary courtesy. As my vision deteriorates — as pretty much everyone’s does as they age, to one degree or another — I’m going to benefit directly from this particular common-sense courtesy, as opposed to the indirect benefit I derive when disabled people are enabled to participate more fully in society.

The thing is, adaptations are usually good for everyone. Ramps on the sidewalk are put there for people in wheelchairs, but they are also used by parents with strollers and by shoppers with grocery carts. When pedestrians are given a choice between using a ramp and a staircase, you will usually see them choose the ramp.

There’s a program on the city buses here in Montreal that allows women to ask to be let off between stops at night so they don’t have to walk as far. I dislike the implementation: I think that once it’s recognised that some people feel uncomfortable walking alone after dark that the program should be open to everyone. A gay teenager worried about skinheads should be able to get off in front of his door at midnight if he thinks it’s necessary. So should an old guy worried about muggers. Personally? I’m a woman but I’ve never felt the need to use the service. I think this particular implementation reinforces the notion that women are victims, but the concept, if extended to everyone, is quite valuable.

A lot of us would benefit from noise-cancelling headphones at work even without a diagnosis of ADHD. Making them available to all employees would presumably improve workplace productivity for everyone without singling anyone out for special treatment.

And don’t we all like the big adapted toilet cubicles? Sure, they exist so that wheelchair users can use them, but the rest of us benefit.

More relevant to mental health issues is probably part-time work or flexible schedules. There are lots of people who would benefit from being able to choose four 10-hour days over five 8-hour ones, or simply working fewer standard days a week. You don’t need a special certified disability, visible or invisible, to want that.

I haven’t told my boss about the mental health services that I use. If at some point I need to take sick leave — well, at some point most people need to take sick leave for one reason or another. I’m not different that way. If I become unable to manage myself any longer and am no longer productive, that’s another story. I have two years of employment insurance that’s part of my benefits package and then I have to rethink my life. I don’t worry much about talking to my boss because any disability I have is invisible.

I guess the real issue is that people with disabilities are assumed to be incompetent, and that their participation in the workforce is an ill-gotten gain. Kind of like anyone who is different from the stereotype for a particular job. (Women in tech support. Black people in research. They must be there as a special favour. They can’t really be any good.) There are no accommodations that can address visibility; and if people believe you deserve to be there, they won’t be griping that you are allowed to type with a mouth stick when everyone else has to use their hands.

Zoe Brain said...

Not all "mental illnesses" are covered by ADA.

Section 12211.

Under this chapter, the term "disability" shall not include

(1) transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders;

(2) compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania; or

(3) psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.

Intersexed people appear to be covered, unless they transition - that would be considered "transsexualism" along with GID caused by neurology. GID not caused by neurology or a non-neurological IS condition would be under "gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments".

So those who require hormones, surgery etc, and "special accomodations" when in the gender twilight zone of transition under the Standards of Care, they're, as they say, SOOL.

That section was added by Senator Jesse Helms.

Zoe Brain said...

At the risk of being seen with both OCD and paranoia...

I can understand some of this section. Imagine a voyeuristic window cleaner, a kleptomaniac bank teller, a school bus driver with a crack habit, a pyromaniac gas station attendant etc... well, against that we have such political advertisements as this one, attempting to prevent implementation of a Colorado law saying that it's not right to refuse to provide rental accommodation, banking services, or access to public facilities to the transgendered.

Too much of that kind of thing gives you not so much a persecution complex, as a persecution simple (as it were).

Anonymous said...

I live in the UK and all our paper notes are a different size for each amount. Like Canada, they are embossed, raised ink, coloured (for fraud, but also help those with low sight). So it's easy to tell which notes are which. Coins are different sizes, shapes, widths with different embossing round the edge too.

Anonymous said...

As Rosemary above said, in the UK and Europe (and lots of other places, I'm sure) we are used to different colour/size paper currency. I have difficulties distinguishing between notes when I go to the US! (ok, I wear glasses but am very far from blind). I think it's a shame that it had to be a court case that forces the Treasury into the position but surely making some changes to seemingly 'little' things can make a massive different in the lives of those who have disabilities (or are foreign!)