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.