|October 26, 2002|
To The Access Board
Subject: Pedestrian Crossings
I am writing in response to the proposed standards regarding audible traffic indicators and detectable tactile warnings. I oppose any regulation requiring their indiscriminate installation at intersections in my community, in Montana, or indeed anywhere in the country. There is not substantive research that I know of that supports the utility of such dramatic interventions, and thus the effectiveness of the current proposed standards cannot be established by any acceptable objective standard, other than by wishful thinking.
These recommendations betray a fundamental misunderstanding of blindness and the ways that blind people approach travel. They would, if implemented in their present form, impose the concept of environmental change as a means of greater access on people whose access depends more on the opportunity to learn and develop specific skills in order to function in the environment -- and thus achieve equality. Therefore, these regulations would become an institutional form of oppression rather than freedom -- something not intended by the authors of the ADA, but long a concern of the blind in relation to that landmark legislation. These regulations represent a form of paternalism toward the blind in all its classic attributes -- good-intentions and lack of understanding that result in accommodations not needed or desired by the "objects" of the "good works." They will not be more palatable if standardized and implemented by the Access Board, whose implementation of standards for physical access have been so profoundly important to Americans who experience mobility limitations.
I am a 45-year-old blind, single father, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Montana affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. I have a Master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling, and more than fifteen years working in my field -- in a general VR program, on a state-wide supported employment systems-change grant, and the last eight of these years of experience I have served as an Access Coordinator at the University of Montana in Missoula. Thus, I have broad experience dealing with physical, program and employment access for people with every conceivable disability.
I have traveled with a long white cane for about eight years, and there is no intersection in this state I fear to cross using my cane travel techniques -- including Missoula's notorious "Malfunction Junction," a confluence of three major arteries, one of which is U.S. Highways 93 and 12. These are techniques that, when properly applied, make the community in which I live and work completely accessible. They are technique's I was taught by professional Orientation and Mobility Instructors, learned through sharing with other competent blind travelers, and developed with experience. They are not magic, and I am not extraordinary. It simply takes training.
I must now qualify my earlier statement -- there is one notable exception to my sense of confidence in travel. I do not feel so confident crossing at those few intersections now equipped with audible traffic indicators in my state.
These are the problems with audible indicators that make them unwise, unnecessary and unsafe:
1) Audible traffic indicators are not needed. Blind people can cross the street safely by relying on the time-tested techniques of listening to traffic flow to determine when crossing is safe, and by paralleling traffic to stay on course across a long intersection;
2. Audible traffic signals are not wanted, in fact are dangerous, because they mask the critical environmental cue that already exists -- the sound of traffic flow;
3) Audible traffic signals give a false sense of security, in that they suggest that a blind traveler should now cross because it is safe to do so, when in fact they give no cues as to whether drivers are turning right on a red light, and of course, they mask the sound of such a vehicle in motion;
4) Audible traffic signals do not give clear information about direction, and I have never been able to discern comfortably which direction is being indicated. This is particularly a problem at relatively small intersections, in which the two posts of lights and audible sounds are fairly close together -- often the case in Montana;
5) Similarly, in Helena, Montana where more than one intersection has audible traffic indicators within a short one-block area, the remote signals are also audible, further confusing and obscuring the environmental cues of the traffic flow.
6) Audible traffic indicators are difficult to screen out in order to employ sounder techniques, in fact it is hard to stay still at an intersection when an obnoxiously loud audible indicator begins sounding behind a pedestrian - blind or sighted. The ding serves as a prod that is difficult to override or resist, posing the danger of jumping off the sidewalk before being able to discern if it is indeed safe to cross. In particular, this is a serious problem that interferes with my own practice of pausing for a few seconds to ensure that the traffic in motion is not responding to a left-turn-only indicator and, if this is not the case, that a vehicle is not turning right on the red signal into my path.
All this noise serves to create an auditory "fog," if you will, which seriously interferes with the well-researched and widely employed travel techniques of blind Americans. To implement regulations installing audible traffic signals indiscriminately would prove disastrous to the free and unrestricted mobility that we, the blind of the Nation, now enjoy.
I am sure the "well-intentioned" purpose of audible indicators is to ensure safe pedestrian crossing for the blind, but their installation would not increase access to the community for me, but create new barriers -- barriers which do not now exist.
The installation of detectable tactile warnings, in particular truncated domes, are similarly unnecessary and potentially detrimental to blind travelers.
1) Curb cuts are negotiable by the blind if adequate slope is provided;
2) Banked sides of curb cuts are excellent and adequate tactile indicators of the sidewalk meeting the street;
3) The necessity of tactile warnings of any kind owe to an overreaction to wheelchair access -- that is, the removal of slope and banked curb cuts in "blended" meetings of sidewalk and street - and thus must be attributed to bad planning and engineering in those cases where less drastic approaches would serve a greater number of people with disabilities;
4) In areas of the country, such as Montana, where snow is a part of the landscape much of the year, truncated domes will become barriers that catch berms of snow as it is removed from the streets and sidewalks. They will become the anchors of ice-clogs at the meeting of street and sidewalk, and will serve to obscure the optimum entry to the crosswalk that could be
indicated by a reasonably sloped and/or banked curb cut. Therefore they
will create a travel hazard for pedestrians in general, rather than eliminate one for the blind. Further, they will make entry to the street impossible for wheelchair users;
5) Truncated domes are expensive and frivolous in the face of more functional and thoughtful planning and engineering that includes use of adequate slope and/or banked curb cuts.
It is, of course, conceivable that there will be locations where adequate slope can not be provided at the approach of a sidewalk to an intersection, and thus where safe travel would be compromised for the average blind person who has received proper mobility training. In such instances, some form of tactile warning may be necessary, and I refer the Access Board to those recommendations offered by the National Federation of the Blind that address these occurrences.
Contrary to what many sighted people may believe, I would always prefer to negotiate a curb, rather than a curb cut. However, I have learned to negotiate a curb cut, while my friends and colleagues in wheelchairs cannot develop skills to climb curbs in their chairs, necessitating environmental solutions for their access. Thus, this is a reasonable compromise that I am happy and able to make in the interest of equal access. However, I cannot imagine safely learning to negotiate audible traffic indicators, and I believe that tactile warnings (in particular, truncated domes) are necessary only when other environmental cues are removed for the sake of access for others. It seems to me, then, that just as it is cheaper and wiser to build access for wheelchairs in the first place, it is not wise to build in other hazards for blind travelers that necessitate retrofitting our streets and intersections at such extraordinary expense.
In summary, audible traffic indicators present more barriers and hazards than they can possibly solve -- especially when safe travel is already possible without them. Similarly, truncated domes prove themselves to be greater problems than they solve. The expense of these environmental non-solutions is unwarranted and unwanted by the blind. The implementation of the proposed regulations will result in reduced access for the blind and an unconscionable act of paternalism perpetrated upon the blind of the nation.
I speak to hundreds of citizens each year about the ADA and civil rights for people with disabilities. These include small and large presentations, as well as numerous one-on-one sessions with students who have disabilities. Hand in hand with the explanation that people with disabilities have rights, and should insist on them, is the message that the ADA also has provisions of that protect the right of any person with a disability to refuse any accommodation they do not want. This provision was insisted upon by the National Federation of the Blind, because no protection of one's right to access and participation is complete without the right to reject paternalism. As I tell those to whom I speak of the ADA, this provision exists in the law because too often blind people are helped across the
street when they are simply waiting for the bus. Enacting the current proposals will cement that kind of well-intentioned paternalism into our every street corner. Because the ADA is nothing if it is not a protection against paternalism, its purposes and intentions will be drowned out by the sounds of audible traffic signals. We are responding to reject the paternalism embodied in the current proposed standards.
I urge the Access Board to severely curtail its recommendations for these changes, and to implement regulations that reflect the true requirements of blind travelers. Don't give us what we do not need or want. Do not fail by acting when no action is called for.
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