Do you remember playing "Parchesi"?
You’d roll the dice and move your wooden nubbin up a row of squares until you jumped a row and arrived at another identical and deterministic block of squares.
Parchesi, like most board games was originally invented as a soft way to kill time.
Basically it was a pastime for palace courtesans who had to wait around until the King came home.
It’s what you played while you wondered if your head would be cut off at sundown.
Lately the news has been filled with stories about the decision by a Federal Appeals court in favor of a lawsuit calling for the U.S. Treasury to issue "blind friendly" money.
I think any reasonable person would agree that having currency that the blind can identify is a good idea. Heck, those Europeans (you know, those people who make better hair care products and automobiles) have been issuing "blind friendly" money for years.
The Parchesi game starts when one group of blindness advocates disagrees with another group.
The lawsuit calling for accessible money was filed by the American Council of the Blind, a national blindness advocacy organization located in Washington, DC.
The ACB is not the only organization that advocates for blind people. There are many other groups.
One of those groups is known as the National Federation of the Blind. Like the ACB they’re headquartered in the Washington, DC area—they have impressive facilities in Baltimore.
I don’t speak for either of these organizations though I have links to their respective websites on this blog.
Briefly: the NFB believes that blind people know how to fold their money into discernible shapes and that fighting for more easily detectable bills is a red herring. The argument is sound: there are a gazillion problems that blind people face in terms of unemployment, the cost of assistive technologies, lousy mass transportation, inaccessible information technology, corporate and public hubris—you name it—the blind have plenty of trouble.
I agree that the blind have plenty of trouble.
I’m thrilled that the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit of their own against Target because "Tar Jay" refused to make their online shopping website accessible for the blind. Go NFB!
The inaccessibility of websites and information technologies affects me every single day. As a university professor I have tons of trouble getting information from the library or even posting my grades online because IT systems are not designed with screen reading software in mind. This is a real headache. I have to ask others to help me perform tasks that I would prefer to do by myself.
But the game of Parchesi starts when the NFB can’t find common cause with the ACB around the basic right of Americans to have and hold their own money without the assistance of sighted people.
The NFB argues that blind people don’t need this accommodation and that frankly, even fighting "for" this accommodation makes the blind look helpless in the eyes of the general public.
This rationale for opposing a legal action that calls for accessible money is in my view a kind of "Parchesi" game—it’s an abject and nearly hopeless position.
Yes, the blind can learn how to fold their paper bills into origami and this is a learnable skill. But you still have to know a trustworthy sighted person at the bank or credit union who will help you identify your filthy lucre in the first place. This business of needing a sighted person is the issue.
When I vote I need a sighted person to help me because the electronic voting machines that are supposed to be accessible have never worked in any polling place I’ve ever voted at.
Do I look helpless when I ask a gray haired lady to help me cast my vote?
I have no idea.
Some might say: "Look at that blind guy with the Chris Dodd button and the fantastically beautiful guide dog stepping out together into the public and casting a vote. What an independent and outgoing man! By Golly!"
Some might say: "Look at that sad blind man who needs help casting his vote. And jeez, it’s sad that he needs a cane or a dog to help him. I’d rather be dead than be in his shoes."
Plenty of people who do not currently have a disability think that having one is a monumental tragedy. When TV programs like "Dateline" feature a blind person they will often say: "He was "Struck down" by blindness."
That old Victorian language still haunts every person with a disability.
In his wonderful memoir "Moving Violations" John Hockenberry describes an encounter he once had with an airline hostess who, seeing that he used a wheelchair, opined that if she was in his shoes she’d probably have to kill herself.
All people with disabilities can narrate stories like Hockenberry’s.
"Parchesi" enters the picture when individuals or groups decide that public ignorance should be warranted or rewarded with inaction.
The argument that blind people don’t need accessible money falls into this category of abjection.
I travel frequently in Europe and I’m always liberated by having and holding their accessible bills.
We blind people have plenty of problems alright. But the idea that fighting for full inclusive life will in some way diminish us in the eyes of the public is in my view one of the biggest problems of all.
And here’s one more thing to think about: as the population of the United States continues to age we will perforce have many millions of citizens who will be affected by "low vision". I think that people who see with great difficulty will be helped profoundly by money that comes in different shapes and colors. So will the general public.
I believe that the best accommodations for people with disabilities are the ones that benefit the most people. Wheelchair ramps help moms and dads with strollers and elderly people with walkers. And do you ever wonder why we now have "family friendly" public restrooms complete with diaper changing stations?
It’s because under the ADA we improved the design of bathrooms and Holy Cow! We discovered that we could make better spaces for everybody!
Better is better.
Parchesi is really a dull game if your head stays on your shoulders.