The Braille Monitor January 2003
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The Federation Is Attacked for Seeking to Enhance Mobility and Safety
by Marc Maurer
Recent postings on the Internet claim that the National Federation of the Blind is a terrorist organization attempting to kill blind people. What could possibly be the basis for such outlandish statements? The National Federation of the Blind has presented testimony before the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board regarding the board's plans to install audible traffic signals (sometimes called accessible pedestrian signals) and detectable warnings--dome-like protrusions from the pavement intended to be placed in crosswalks and intersections as well as other locations so that blind people can feel them with their feet. The purpose of the dome-like protrusions is to tell blind people who walk on them that danger is nearby. There has been much controversy about the detectable warnings and the audible signals. Certain recent postings on the Internet suggest that the NFB is against them and all right-thinking people other than NFB members (and even some of our own members) are for them.
This misrepresentation is as false and misleading as the charge that the Federation is a terrorist organization. Those who make the allegations attempt to oversimplify and twist our position for the purpose of attacking the organization.
What is the position of the National Federation of the Blind regarding audible signals and detectable warnings, and why have we adopted it? Resolutions adopted by the Convention (reprinted at the end of this article) indicate that the Federation opposes the practice of installing detectable warnings and audible signals wherever pedestrians travel but supports the installation of them in specialized areas. Audible traffic signals are in many instances a disadvantage because they add so much noise pollution to the environment that listening to traffic becomes difficult. However, they may be installed at complex intersections where they will assist in the comprehension of complex traffic patterns. In those instances in which signals are to be installed, the Federation calls upon traffic engineers to consult with the organized blind.
To say, as I have heard some do, "We're for them and you're against them," is a vast oversimplification and misrepresentation. We are against the statement, the argument, and the implication that blind people are unable to compete unless the world is modified at every intersection, on every sidewalk, and in a number of other places; but such modification is valuable in certain specified locations.
Traffic signalization for the sighted has become much more complex than it was decades ago. Traffic signalization for the blind should recognize and account for such increases in complexity as well. If this is done with judgment and understanding, mobility is enhanced, safety is increased, and the spirit of independence is fostered. This is the position of the National Federation of the Blind.
Part of the problem is that some people believe audible signals and underfoot detectable warnings will do more than they are capable of doing. Just as it is not always safe to cross a street when the walk sign is illuminated, it is not always safe to cross the same street when the audible traffic signal is sounding. Those who cross the street must pay attention to traffic. If the blind pedestrian relies too heavily on the signal, is distracted by the signal from paying attention to other cues, or is unable to hear the traffic pattern because the signal has masked the sounds of traffic, the installation of these devices will diminish safety for that pedestrian. There will be times and there are places in which the safest travel is accomplished without an audible signal.
The underfoot raised dome has its own problems. Whenever the surface underfoot becomes rough, it also becomes less stable for walking or for transportation systems with narrow wheels. Rough surfaces are also more difficult to clean, and they introduce problems for snow and ice removal. The dome-like protrusions should be installed only in cases in which they provide sufficient advantage to warrant the disadvantages inherent in them.
It is dangerous to ask for modifications to the environment that we do not need, and it leads to an impression that blind people lack competence. There are sufficient numbers of people who believe that blind people are incompetent already without adding to the notion. We should seek installation of the dome-like protrusions and audible signals only as often as they will provide genuine help. When they will provide genuine help, we should press for their installation with all vigor. Here are the resolutions that embody our decisions.
WHEREAS, the Public Rights-of-Way Access Advisory Committee (PROWAAC) of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) issued a report called "Building a True Community," which proposed new standards and regulations to govern the building and rebuilding of public rights-of-way such as streets, sidewalks, and other outdoor public areas so that individuals with disabilities can access them; and
WHEREAS, this report contained recommendations in the form of a definition and also a set of requirements for installation of detectable warnings, describing them as raised truncated domes in a strip two feet deep and spanning the entire width of the curb ramp and painted bright yellow or otherwise highly contrasting in color with the surrounding surface; and
WHEREAS, these raised truncated domes are thought by some to give the blind pedestrian a tactile warning underfoot that something hazardous lies ahead; and
WHEREAS, on June 17, 2002, the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) published draft guidelines for public rights-of-way, substantially adopting the PROWAAC report regarding detectable warnings; and
WHEREAS, the ATBCB's draft requirement for a detectable warning surface two feet deep where the ramp, landing, or blended transition connects to a crosswalk and in other areas rests on the fallacy that public rights-of-way without such brightly colored tactile markings are unsafe for blind people and that taxpayer dollars must be devoted to universal installation of these strips of colored domes; and
WHEREAS, rather than being supported by a demonstrated and factual need, the ATBCB's draft guideline is based on nothing more than fear of blindness and lack of knowledge about how blind people travel independently and safely and could bring the entire regulation, if enacted, under fire in the courts and city halls of America; and
WHEREAS, pursuant to Federation policy as set forth by previous resolutions, the National Federation of the Blind filed a minority report advocating that detectable warnings be placed only at intersections at which the approach to the street is at a slope of one inch downward for every fifteen inches of sidewalk, commonly called a slope of 1:15 or flatter, since intersections with an approach to the street of 1:15 or less are virtually flat and are the only places where it may arguably be difficult for a blind person to determine when the sidewalk ends and the street begins; and
WHEREAS, intersections with street approaches which slope at an angle steeper than 1:15 are readily detectable underfoot whether the blind person is using a cane, a dog, or no mobility tool whatsoever, and therefore do not require the installation of expensive truncated dome strips to ensure that blind people detect the street; and
WHEREAS, the ATBCB's draft guideline is now subject to public comment and will not become a final and enforceable rule if the facts about blindness and independent travel are presented and understood, but previously suspended requirements for detectable warnings which differ from the current draft guidelines are technically now in effect, the suspension having lapsed, making a resolution of this issue inevitable: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this ninth day of July 2002, in the City of Louisville, Kentucky, that this organization vigorously oppose the ATBCB's draft guidelines calling for the universal installation of detectable warnings; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization petition the ATBCB to reinstate the suspension on guidelines for detectable warnings while further consideration is given to the draft guideline on public rights-of-way, in order to avoid confusion and needless installation of warning strips that are apt to be inconsistent with the eventual guideline regardless of the result; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the ATBCB to adopt a final guideline based on facts rather than fear and which may include installation of detectable warnings only when the slope of the curb ramp at an intersection equals 1:15 or less.
WHEREAS, the Public Rights-of-Way Access Advisory Committee (PROWAAC) of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) issued a report called "Building a True Community" which proposed new standards and regulations to govern the building and rebuilding of public rights-of-way such as streets, sidewalks, and other outdoor public areas so that individuals with disabilities can access them; and
WHEREAS, this report contained recommendations regarding Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APSs), which are electronic devices that alert the blind pedestrian in an audible or vibrotactile manner when the traffic signal has changed so that it is safe to walk; and
WHEREAS, the report recommended that an APS shall be provided at any intersection where the timing of a pedestrian signal is altered by push button actuation and where the signal includes a leading pedestrian interval, a period of time during which the pedestrian is allowed to start crossing before vehicular traffic is allowed to move; and
WHEREAS, the report further recommended that APSs with an optional-use feature be installed at intersections where pedestrian crossing intervals are pretimed and not affected by the push of a button; and
WHEREAS, pursuant to resolutions adopted by this organization, the Federation submitted a minority report urging that the ATBCB mandate APSs in situations only where the built environment did not provide sufficient nonvisual clues for a blind pedestrian to know when it was safe to cross and that all APSs be vibrotactile so that unneeded and distracting noise not be emitted into intersections; and
WHEREAS, on June 17, 2002, the ATBCB published a draft guideline based on the PROWAAC report, essentially disregarding both the PROWAAC report and the Federation's recommendations and calling instead for APSs with locator tones to be installed at every intersection with a pedestrian signal; and
WHEREAS, the PROWAAC report proposed installing APSs in an overly broad number of places but at least limited the installation to some degree and further provided for an optional activation feature, thereby giving each pedestrian the choice of using or not using the APS; and
WHEREAS, the board's draft guidelines will force installation and use of APSs at every signalized intersection in America while costing taxpayers many billions of dollars; and
WHEREAS, at the majority of intersections the existing environment and traffic pattern provide sufficient nonvisual cues for blind persons to cross the street safely without APSs, and blind people do so every day: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this ninth day of July 2002, in the City of Louisville, Kentucky, that this organization condemn and deplore the ATBCB's narrow-minded and uninformed view of blindness as expressed in the draft guideline proposing to require the installation of APSs at all signalized intersections in America; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the ATBCB to reconsider and reject the extreme position taken on APSs in its June 17, 2002, draft guidelines and adopt a position on the placement and use of APSs that is more realistic and consistent with the prevailing view among the blind themselves.
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