Jane Lansaw N.O.M.C.
|October 28, 2002|
Dear Transportation Board Members,
I am a blind person and a certified orientation and mobility instructor. I not only teach the alternative techniques of blindness, I use them as a normal part of my everyday life. As a blind person and as a rehabilitation professional, I am deeply concerned about the environmental changes being proposed by your board. By and large, most of these changes are simply unnecessary and I would tend to ignore their existence as I would ignore the white lines on a crosswalk. when I can see them at all, which isn't often, I have already ascertained the information they offer. Like the lines on a crosswalk, truncated domes and audible traffic signals are unnecessary because there are so many other cues in the environment that tell me where and when to cross a street. Unlike the lines on a crosswalk, which are perfectly serviceable alternative techniques for the sighted, truncated domes and audible traffic signals are freighted with difficulty for the very people they are intended to assist. These are not only issues of safety but of a broader social view.
First I will address truncated domes. It is logical to think that a pedestrian might need to know where the cross walk is located on an intersection. sighted people have painted lines on the street for just such a purpose but the absence of these lines doesn't impede a sighted person's ability to cross safely. Likewise, even though I can rarely see crosswalk lines, I know where they should be. I listen to the sound of cars, the echo of surrounding buildings and feel the texture of the pavement under my cane and feet to judge where the sidewalk stops and the street starts. If a corner is particularly tricky, I e flat, blended curb, I use my cane to tell concrete from asphalt or other subtle changes that show the difference. I also use the sound of the vehicles to judge the distance between myself and traffic and can extrapolate my proximity from that.
Let me pause to mention a factor which may be confusing to you. I have mentioned my occasional ability to see things. This partial vision is a convenience when window shopping but was often a danger to me before I used sleep shades to obtain my personal blindness skills. I also used these shades when training as a cane travel instructor and consider them a valuable teaching tool with my students. therefore, it is not my very limited vision which makes me a safe traveler, it is my ability to ignore such vision in favor of more accurate information that makes me safe. This is true for most blind people with some vision.
Back to the crosswalk though. Such painted lines may or may not be of any use to the sighted for whom they are designed but their presence holds no physical danger for those who trod upon them. Truncated domes however can pose a hazard, not especially to the blind but to anyone with a walking impediment and walking aids like support canes and crutches. People without a walking impediment can also be in danger during bad weather. Ice, rain and snow can make regular footing treacherous for the average pedestrian. Ordinary surfaces are bad enough when wet and slick. Add the uneven surface of truncated domes and no one is safe. Some intrepid members of my gender walk about perched precariously on spiked heels. Whenever I encounter truncated domes, I give thanks that I have never been a woman who wears heels. This combination frightens me more than any type of traffic. If safety is your motivation for installing these devices, consult the blind for whom they are intended. Consult those who are out on the street, using the alternative techniques of blindness as a matter of course. Some food for thought, if a crossing is truly unsafe for the blind, is it really any safer for the sighted pedestrian? Are there some streets that you should not be crossing too?
I want to pause briefly to mention subway platforms. A great deal has been said by some blind people about the dangers of subway platforms which do not have truncated domes around the edge. If you use a white cane, you will notice the sudden drop two or three steps before your foot comes near the edge. If you use a dog guide, the animal is trained to alert to such things as steps, curbs or sudden drop offs. My O. & M. class took a tour of The Seeing Eye and they explained all of this to us on a train platform high above the ground in Morristown N.J. If you do not use a cane or dog, one would presume that your eyes are reliable enough to make these tools unnecessary. Presumably too, you have entered a train or subway platform area deliberately and have reason to expect such an edge. It is difficult for anyone, no matter how cognitively impaired, to wander into such places unaware. People who fall from such platforms do so for reasons other than visual acuity. Intoxication, suicide, even daydreaming can cause this tragedy but not blindness. Some would say that if a blind person falls to the tracks, it is because of blindness and our tools, cane or dog, were insufficient to protect us. If a sighted person falls, no one ever says that eyesight is an insufficient tool. However if you did a statistical survey, I would wager that the percentages of sighted to blind falls are about equal. There are far more sighted people falling each year than blind. Not that we are safer, only that there are more of you. I would wager that the survey would show that the odds are even. Blind people have the skills to avoid this calamity. If we didnít, we wouldnít have the skills to reach the station in the first place. Those blind people who believe truncated domes are necessary may be suffering from the beliefs about blindness that much of society holds. More about this as we get into social views.
What of audible traffic signals? Why are they so controversial? These devices too are usually unnecessary and can also be unsafe. They are unnecessary because there are ways of listening to traffic to determine when it is safe to cross. those blind people with hearing impairments who cannot make use of my methods would be equally unable to make use of those your board is proposing. They are unsafe for two reasons. First, the sound of the signal may mask a particularly quiet vehicle which is about to turn toward me or run a red light. Sighted people make use of "walk" and "don't walk" signs all the time. This doesn't mean that you do not also watch out for vehicles in turn lanes or drivers who are reckless. You have the common sense to pay attention to your environment even when the light is green and the sign says you may walk. So do the blind but if you mask the important sounds with what is in essence a "walk don't walk" sign, you are making it more dangerous for us than it was before you ever came along. Since your motivation is only to be helpful, I recommend a vibro/tactile signal for the deaf blind. This would be actuated only by people who need and want them, it would not make it more dangerous for the rest of us and would be more appropriate as it would actually help the one population who needs it the most, the deaf/blind. Blind people in general might find your suggestions more helpful if you limited your signals to round abouts and extremely geometrically complex, multi-street intersections. Even so, consulting blind organizations in a given area before making plans is generally a considerate thing to do as it is the lives of these people who will be impacted by such major environmental constructs.
I mentioned a broader social view above. This is about how the blind are treated in society. To understand how society sees us, we look at how other minorities have fared in our world. As you know, segregation meant much more than a white person not wanting to drink after or go to school with a black person. By having special facilities for minorities, society could require the group to use those facilities instead of the regular facilities. Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation Of the Blind, recently informed the members of this organization, that he had learned something disturbing in Japan. Blind people in that country may be experiencing a very real segregation not unlike the southern drinking fountains of our own history. Where there are special signals for the blind, they are encouraged to use them exclusively, even when it may be perfectly safe and more convenient to use the paths taken by everyone else. Doubtless, you are saying that such extremes could never happen in America. We learned our lesson about segregation. The 14th Amendment scholar, Jacobus tenBroek once said that if tyrany comes to America, it will come in the form of services. Surely you have observed that 21st century America is a very service oriented society.
Whether it will or wonít come to full segregation, such services as truncated domes and audible traffic signals can adversely affect the attitudes of society toward the blind. This in turn will shape the attitudes of the blind about themselves. If we allow modifications to the environment which are unnecessary, we are encouraging society to restrict us even more than it tries to do at present. If everyone thinks we need all these special constructs to move safely in the world, they will never be able to look at us as possible employees, coworkers or first class citizens at all. If we need bells and whistles to get around, if taxpayers must foot the bill to take us by the hand and keep us safe, how can they take us seriously as their equals and responsible partners in society? They cannot. Society has relatively low expectations regarding the abilities of the blind compared with other disabled minorities. Still, expectations are higher today than they were a hundred years ago. The future has the potential of offering still higher expectations until the day when society in general learns to expect the blind to pull their weight just like everyone else. If we allow well intentioned groups and boards to provide us with services we donít need, we are inviting you to lower your expectations even further. We are inviting further restriction, segregation and a return to the alms house and the rocking chair. As we teach you to believe we are less capable than we are, you will teach us in turn to believe we are less capable. This vicious circle of lowered expectation is why some of our blind brethren believe they need special bells and whistles to get about safely. If we allow their expectations for their own abilities to sink further, who knows. Maybe next they will want a special Wal Mart for the blind because the regular one is too big and dangerous to navigate.
We have been discussing the views on blindness of both the sighted and the blind. What really breaks my heart as a rehabilitation professional is the difficulty sighted people have when they lose vision. Giving up the car keys, discussing alternative techniques and making the decision to step out in public with a white cane are all much more soul searching decisions than they need to be. Clients have cried in my arms because they are now faced with a state of being which is completely normal and natural for me. Going blind is hard for sighted people because they are taught that it is a tragedy and they are less of a person. It takes a lot of work and patience to build them back up to normal and it neednít be that way. If we insist that people see blindness for what it is, a characteristic requiring some alternative methods to do what others do with sight, perhaps people will one day go blind with the grace and dignity of turning Seventy. You can help this happen. By talking and listening to the blind, finding out what blindness is and what it isnít, you can make it easier for my future clients to come into blindness without all the trauma of the current generation. You have chosen this notion of modifying the environment because you want to make sure we can get where we are going safely. As people who make decisions regarding transportation, you would do us a far greater service by assisting with the perpetuation of public transportation so that the blind and all pedestrians can have access to the world as it is.
Jane Lansaw N.O.M.C.
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