October 11, 2002
I am writing in support of the concept and implementation of both accessible
pedestrian signals and detectable warnings. As a blind person who has traveled
extensively around the United States, I value these features that provide me
with the same access to information about my environment as printed signage and
visual features do for sighted pedestrians.
I lost the majority of my sight at age 19 and underwent standard, state-funded
rehabilitation where I had approximately 12 weeks of orientation and mobility
training. During this time, I was taught how to incorporate accessible
pedestrian signals into my travel skill set. This training in 1983 made use of
rudimentary audible signals that often covered up sounds of turning traffic. My
instructor was very quick to note that no one should rely solely on the sound of
a buzzer or bell to know when it was safe to cross any street with such a
signal. He trained all of his students, as did other orientation and mobility
instructors in this facility, to listen to traffic flow before, during and after
the audible signal to determine when it was safe to enter and complete a
crossing. He also explained the value of knowing at which point in the signal,
as indicated by the audible buzzer, it was safe for all pedestrians to cross.
My travel skills literally grew with the development of audible and tactile
signal technology but at no time did they rely primarily on the presence of that
technology for proper street crossing. That is, until recently.
At age 22 I trained with my first guide dog and have worked with 5 dogs over the
subsequent years. The key to working successfully with a guide dog is being an
active part of a team. My job in street crossings is to know when to command the
animal into the street. Then we both must listen and the dog must actively watch
traffic as we complete our crossing. For years, this was possible at most
intersections without the aid of an accessible signal. Where such signals were
present though, they aided me in more accurately kno wing when to command my dog
into the street, thus giving us both more confidence about completing the
In the past 5 years, intersection design and street layout has changed to
accommodate more and more cars. I have noticed just in my travel around
Columbus, Ohio that the number of lanes and patterns of traffic are not as easy
to read as in past years. Traffic management features such as wide, rounded
curbs for turning lanes, round-abouts and "porkchop islands" have made the act
of approaching a corner, lining up with parallel traffic and making a straight
street crossing more and more difficult.
I think of myself as a good traveler. I am now totally blind and have traveled
alone to Australia and throughout this country. I feel I have had appropriate
training from rehabilitation professionals and have read about new traffic
situations such as those mentioned above and about the rules of actuated
intersections, "claiming the intersection" and other pedestrian issues. In other
words, I am not in need of any training simply to use my environment. What I am
in need of is information.
I need to know when I as the pedestrian have the "walk sign." I need to know
where the actual pedestrian crosswalk is when not located at a 90-degree angled
corner. I need to know if I am approaching an area with a dangerous edge, such
as a train or subway platform or loading dock in a parking structure. These are
not things sighted pedestrians have to undergo special training to know about.
They simply look up at signs or see the features as part of the environment. For
me, accessible pedestrian signals and detectable warnings are as simple as
visual cues for sighted pedestrians. They do not involve further training by
specific organizations on my part, just a means of providing the same
information sighted people receive.
It is crucial for people who work with guide dogs not only to understand and use
the orientation and mobility cues already present, such as traffic sounds and
contextual layout of outdoor spaces, train and subway stations, etc., but to
have other information about how to navigate. The dog, contrary to popular
fiction, does not do all of the work of getting the team from one place to
another. The guide dog is analogous to a smart automobile in that I must steer
it and get it moving in a certain direction, but it automatically avoids all of
the potholes and other cars in its way without me having to direct it.
Due to the complex nature of traffic today, many dogs working in urban
environments are "burning out" earlier and earlier. Why? Because their human
partner has less and less information with which to support them when entering
streets, causing the dog to make more decisions on its own. Over time, this
vigilance to traffic and need to make quick decisions takes its toll on a dog.
We as guide dog handlers also can suffer serious lapses in confidence when
constantly faced with traffic situations that we cannot interpret, such as the
multi-phase intersection, rounded curbs, crossing halfway down a block to
accommodate a round-about design, etc.
Rather than making us more independent, this frustration over lack of
information about such streets and other areas tends to cause people not to
travel for fear of finding themselves at a situation they cannot interpret
safely. This fear leads to a dependence on paratransit and other services once
thought not to be needed by blind people with functional travel skills.
I have had the honor and pleasure over the past ten years of interacting with
hundreds of blind people around the United States, and corresponding via email
with thousands more around the world. We all value our independence and
inclusion in society. That independence and inclusion takes many forms. The one
thing we cannot deny though is that the built environment is becoming far more
complex than what most of us learned to handle in our initial orientation and
mobility training. Blind children today have the advantage of being able to
incorporate many new travel skills, including the appropriate use of accessible
pedestrian signals and detectable warnings.
Over the same ten year period, I have also seen very poorly designed and
implemented accessible pedestrian signals and detectable warnings, embodying all
of the features their critics detest. Like poorly printed or contrasted signage
for sighted people, poorly designed accessible signals that are too loud, easily
confused with environmental sounds such as birds or not located in appropriate
places for people to activate them and return to the beginning of the crosswalk
to cross a street, are dangerous and detract from the area as a whole and its
use by everyone, not just blind people.
When saying that I support the concepts of accessible pedestrian signals and
detectable warnings, I mean that I support their appropriate implementation,
with consideration to the surrounding area and use patterns, but not taking one
individual's or organization's point of view as the sole arbiter of that
community in their installation. No single organization can possibly represent
all people with a given distinction. Making intersections and platforms safe for
everyone, not just the prototypical blind person, elderly person or child,
should be the goal of any civil engineer and city.
I end by relating 2 stories of the importance of accessible pedestrian signals
and detectable warnings in my life.
My husband and I are both legally blind. We both work with guide dogs. We live
in a standard, housing subdivision in a suburban area of Columbus, Ohio.
Bordering our subdivision are 2 arterial roads that come together at a four-way
intersection. This intersection has fairly rounded corners and carries a very
high volume of traffic at peak periods. There are no sidewalks leading along
these arterial roads or at the intersection.
Across the other three sides of this intersection, small businesses form the
core of services we can readily reach on foot. These places include a pharmacy,
veterinary clinic, dry cleaner and restaurant. When requesting accessible
pedestrian signals for this very complex and often very busy intersection with
actuated signals, several configurations of turning cycles and approximately 1.5
to 3 miles of non-stop roadway before reaching the intersection, we were told
that only the leg we traveled most would or could be made accessible. This
necessitates that we be particularly alert at reading traffic. This is not
normally a problem but because we do not have reliable access to information
about this intersection's changing walk cycle, we simply do not attempt to cross
there during peak traffic times, thus limiting our access to those businesses.
The accessible signal at this intersection is a loud buzzer, nothing like the
newer, more discrete signals. It is only activated when a pedestrian presses the
button for crossing, something that luckily must not be done to actually give a
walk sign, but is done as an afterthought by many people crossing here on foot.
In this neighborhood, no one walks outside of the well-kept sidewalks of the
subdivisions. They rarely are seen on foot along the arterials. There is,
however, a high population of school-aged children, grades K through 12. These
children must cross at this and other intersections in the area. When observing
who actually did press the button to get the accessible signal recently, we
noticed that all of the children pressed the button. They had been taught to do
so by their parents and teachers, we discovered, in part because the sound of
the signal was thought to alert drivers to look for pedestrians and also that
sound brought children who were not paying attention to visual signals back to
the business of crossing the street.
These children do not need any special training at an organization to cross the
street. They are able to do so more safely because of an accessible pedestrian
signal, the same signal that makes it much safer for me to cross this
intersection. Could I cross without the signal? Yes, but it is much more
Regarding detectable warnings, during training with my current guide dog in New
York City, we worked in the subway system. On prior training trips to the
subway, my past dogs had picked up on my fear of falling or misjudging the
distance to the edge of the platform. Although we as teams are taught to walk
with the dog between us and the edge of the platform, I often feared
inadvertently pushing my dog off that edge into a sometimes 8-foot deep pit.
This made me very reluctant to use the subway during business trips to New York
and Washington DC. This angered me as I thought of myself as a confident
traveler who knew, in general, the design of such places and who could,
academically, handle them.
It was such a relief and pleasure to travel recently in the New York City and
Washington DC subway systems with their detectable warning strips along the
platforms. I no longer felt the stress of knowing exactly where that edge was. I
could relax and my dog could relax and do its work. I observed other people
walking along the platform, obviously not looking at their surroundings, being
caught up short upon feeling the tactile warning. Several during my trips even
exclaimed at being so close to the platform edge. I can only assume they were
reading or otherwise looking at something other than their feet or the platform
and would have fallen into the pit without this warning strip. These people had
neither cane nor guide dog.
Properly installed and maintained accessible pedestrian signals and detectable
warnings, used with common sense in design and placement blend easily into the
environment and become second nature, features everyone looks for and uses, not
something that separates blind people or distinguishes us in a negative way.
Without these simple methods of gaining information about the environment, many
blind people do not travel and are not as mobile as they could be, increasing
the load on social service and government agencies. It's not about more
training. It's about more information.
The old saying about giving a man a fish and him eating for a day applies here.
I already know how to "fish." I just need a fishing pole.