Customers Speak Up When Clerk Shortchanges Blind Person

It's easy to tell the difference between a $1, $5, $10 or even $50 bill -- that is, if you can see. But, if you're blind like more than 1 million Americans, a simple shopping trip becomes a game of blind trust.

Because U.S. bills are not distinguishable by size, shape or texture, visually impaired people can't distinguish dollar amounts without assistance.

They frequently have to rely on salesclerks or nearby strangers.

But what if the clerk or stranger is dishonest? ABC News wanted to find out how people would respond if they noticed a cashier shortchanging a blind customer.

Watch the story tonight on ABC's "What Would You Do?"

With the cooperation of Gencarelli's, a bakery in Bloomfield, N.J., ABC News rigged the store with hidden cameras and hired two blind actors to pose as customers and another actor to portray the unscrupulous salesclerk.

'What Am I, the Heritage for the Blind?'

It began as Pamela, the blind actress, waited in line and other patrons started to overhear some demeaning dialogue from the salesclerk.

"Would Helen Keller step up to the front, please?"

Pamela brushed the comment aside and proceeded to order a cheesecake. She paid for the $16 cake with a $50 bill. After receiving her change, she asked for assistance in deciphering the bills and was met with even more harsh words.

"What? I have to count this. What am I, the heritage for the blind or something?"

If this wasn't bad enough, the clerk also cheated her. He handed her what he said were a $20 and a $10, but they were actually singles. Would anyone step up to help the blind woman?

The first group of customers to walk into the bakery sat back and listened as the clerk's tirade went on for several minutes. Other customers clearly noticed the cheating but seemed hesitant to take on the clerk. But not Beth Carnicella, who stepped forward in defiance and told him, "I don't think it's nice what you're doing."

The clerk protested, saying that Pamela had received correct change but Carnicella didn't buy it. Almost immediately, she changed tactics and looked for someone else to clear this up.

"Where's your boss? Where's your boss?" she demanded.

After a minute of arguing, she was about to give up and take her business elsewhere but couldn't bear to leave. That's when ABC News let Carnicella in on the experiment and asked why she'd stepped up. Her answer: "I guess that is how I was brought up."

Group Rallies to Defend Pamela

Later in the day, Jessica Gonzales stepped up to help the blind actor. From the back of the line, she rushed to Pamela's aid, calling out, "They're all singles, these are all singles. What are you doing?"

Other people, who had been passively watching the action unfold, began chiming in that she had in fact paid with a $50, not a $20, as the clerk was now claiming.

Gonzales persisted. "You're acting like a total idiot in front of her, she's not a handicap," she said in a loud, firm voice. "Just give her change."

Now an angry mob of people formed behind Pamela, standing with their arms crossed, glaring at the clerk. Just like Carnicella, they refused to leave without talking to the manager.

Later, another group defended Pamela. After they succeeded in getting her money back, they continued to hold what appeared to be a group therapy session.

Store patron Debra Lichter told the clerk, "I used to work with people about how to deal with people with disabilities, and I know you thought you were being cheerful but you were very condescending to this woman."

Bystander Matthew Lichten added, "And I have to say, I am a psychotherapist and you are the one with the disability."

When the Actor Is a Blind Man

But ABC News wondered what would happen if the blind woman was swapped for a blind man named Adam? During half of Adam's shopping trips, no one intervened on his behalf.

Most people didn't explain why, although customer Yvette McNeil said she didn't get involved because the "the guy behind the counter looked mean."

When people did come forward for the blind man, it seemed that they were not only infuriated by the cheating but by their inability to stop it.

Marcia Errar, having witnessed the scene unfold, angrily yelled at the clerk, "You don't need to work in here. Let me tell you that. You don't know how to treat customers."

When the clerk denied having cheated the customer, Fran Rosamilia was so frustrated she asked, "Can you talk? You said that was a $20 and that was a $10, and in his hand those were two ones." In fact, she was so frustrated, she left without buying her cake.

'You're Really Being Rude'

Throughout the course of the experiment people never said a word until they actually saw the clerk shortchange the blind actors. They often disregarded the clerk's initial snide remarks. That is, except for one man named Nick Mitola.

The clerk began in his usual manner, insulting the blind actress about her disability. Mitola spoke up immediately. "You're really being rude, just stop talking, you're getting deeper and deeper," he said firmly.

The clerk asked the actor, "Are you deaf too? I told you three times."

Mitola had finally had enough and could no longer contain his disgust. "Wow. Shut up, Shut up! Enough's enough! Just shut up!" he yelled.

Later, Mitola explained that he owns a steak house down the street and that "if one of my people ever ... I'd have pulled him out of the counter and killed him in front of the customers. I swear to God I would have."

While Pamela and Adam take great pride in their independence, they appreciated the strangers who stood up for them on their behalf. But even more empowering, they said, would be to have a currency that would allow them to distinguish the different bills, so that they wouldn't have to rely on the honesty of strangers every time they shopped.

Indeed, a federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of the American Council of the Blind, concluding that the Treasury Department was being discriminatory by failing to provide such a currency, paving the way for a future redesign.