|October 28, 2002|
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) appreciates the chance to comment on the Draft Guidelines for Pedestrian Rights of Way. The goal of our comments is to help the Access Board develop appropriate guidelines for nonvisual warnings. The NFB supports a reasonable approach to the installation of audible traffic signals (ATS) and detectable warnings that provides greater flexibility than the current draft guidelines.
When considering accessibility in the public rights of way, the distinction between actual and perceived barriers is critical. Actual barriers do exist. They are situations where nonvisual cues do not provide enough information for a blind person with ordinary training to make an efficient and safe street crossing.
Perceived barriers are just what the term suggests. The barrier is more in the mind than in the nature of the physical surroundings. For those who are not blind, sight seems vital. The world is full of perceived barriers to functioning without vision. Perceived barriers can be eliminated with training, but actual barriers cannot. As a matter of public policy, it is essential to sort out the actual barriers from the perceived ones.
Perceived barriers are at the heart of the real problem of blindness and discrimination. As blind people, we continually strive to be treated as equals in society and in the job market. While some people believe that all barriers, perceived or actual, should be addressed by access requirements, to do so sends a false message to society that says to integrate blind people would be costly. Placing this idea of extreme cost over already established negative stereotypes would further discourage employers and society from hiring us and treating us as equals. This is why so many blind people react with a visceral response in opposing guidelines which assume that perceived barriers are actual. If the elimination of perceived barriers becomes part of the guidelines, the Access Board itself becomes guilty of the very discrimination it is charged with eliminating.
To achieve the enthusiastic support of blind people and the local jurisdictions charged with implementing the guidelines, the Access Board must adopt a reasonable approach addressing actual barriers. The guidelines will not achieve widespread support and are apt to become mired down in controversy if they are issued as proposed. This is so because there is a failure to distinguish between perceived and actual barriers.
Audible Traffic Signals:
The National Federation of the Blind believes that audible traffic signals are rarely necessary for accessible and safe travel for the blind. Most intersections do not present actual barriers to safe street crossing without sight. However, in those instances where there are actual barriers vibrotactile signals are preferred over audible signals. Following are our recommendations regarding audible traffic signals.
• Paragraph (d) of section 501 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives individuals with disabilities control over accepting or rejecting aids, benefits, accommodations, or services. Section 1106.2 of the draft guidelines states, “[e]ach crosswalk with pedestrian signal indication shall have a signal device which includes audible and vibrotactile indications of the WALK interval. Where a pedestrian pushbutton is provided, it shall be integrated into the signal device…” This violates paragraph (d) of section 501 of the ADA.
To remedy this violation the standard supported by the final guidelines should preserve individual control over accommodations. The exception would be situations where choice is not permitted by the nature of the accommodation and where the need to have forced use of an accommodation is compelling. In the case of ATS, these criteria are not met. ATS technology permits push button activation assuring individual choice over whether or not to use the accommodation. Therefore, these guidelines should require that all installed audible traffic signals must be push button activated.
• Ample information exists for a trained blind person to cross efficiently and safely at most intersections. Therefore, rather than mandate an audible signal wherever there is a "walk/don't walk" signal, the guidelines should preserve some degree of discretion, with specific criteria. Engineers would use these criteria to make an informed choice whether or not to install audible traffic signals without reference to the presence of “walk/don’t walk” signals.
The criteria to use includes:
1. A cross street with more than 4 lanes;
2. An interval (either lead or lag) when parallel traffic is allowed to turn and cross the pedestrian path of travel;
3. An intersection in which one street dead ends into another at a 90 degree angle or otherwise;
4. An intersection which consists of one or more pedestrian islands midway within the path of travel;
5. An intersection with less than one vehicle per cycle on parallel cross street;
6. An intersection where the timing of signal changes is not based on a fixed interval; and
7. An intersection where the speed limit of traffic on at least one street is greater than 45 miles per hour.
Intersections where three or more of the listed criteria are present should be evaluated to determine whether the combined nature of the conditions and the traffic pattern involved would warrant installation of audible traffic signals. For any intersection where five of the listed criteria are present, audible traffic signals are appropriate.
• The mandate for locator tones proposed in Section 1106.3.2 creates a forced accommodation that could have serious, unintended consequences. The purpose of these tones is audible pole location, but poles are identifiable, fixed objects, quickly found with a cane or dog guide. In addition, the guidelines at Section 1106.2.1 proscribe the space where these poles must be located. Placing a sound on each is certainly not essential for access.
The compromise to safety that results from the competition of sounds, with the addition of locator tones and audible traffic signals, is extremely serious. It is imperative that sounds interfering with the ability to hear traffic be minimized wherever possible. An inability to clearly focus on traffic sounds could actually result in a reduction of accessibility and safety.
For the most part, existing surface characteristics provide more than enough information to determine the transition from a street to a sidewalk, median, or island. However, there are transitions which are flat enough that distinguishing the street from the sidewalk, median, or island may be difficult or impossible. In these instances training would not help. The Board's guidelines should require detectable warnings only in these circumstances. Following are the National Federation of the Blind's recommendations regarding detectable warnings.
Because of the nature of detectable warnings, there is no possibility for individuals to exercise a choice as prescribed in section 501 (d) of the ADA. In lieu of that, the following premise should be a starting point. Detectable warnings should only be used when the surface characteristics do not provide enough information to determine the transition from a street to a sidewalk, median, or island.
In order to delineate these situations, we recommend a definitive standard. This would be where the slope of a transition is 1:15 or flatter. The proposed guideline uses a 1:12 standard, since that is the slope allowed for wheelchair ramps. However, a slope of 1:12 is detectable in and of itself, making an additional warning unnecessary.
The allowed slope of a wheelchair ramp is a valid guideline for safe and accessible use of wheelchairs and has nothing to do with detectability. The guideline for detectability should be considered on its merits and not arbitrarily linked to the slope allowed for wheelchairs.
At a slope of 1:15, the surface change is much less pronounced than it is at 1:12. A change that is at least this flat may not be impossible, but can be difficult for a significant percentage of blind people to detect. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that an actual barrier exists when the transition is this slight.
Access guidelines are needed to address actual barriers. Removing perceived barriers requires effective training for blind people, combined with efforts to change misconceptions. The balance and interplay between these efforts is important. Addressing perceived barriers with access guidelines could do more harm than good. Conversely, if the final guidelines forthrightly address actual instead of perceived barriers, they will earn and deserve our broad and wholehearted support.
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
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