The Braille Monitor                                                                                       January 2003

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Saying No to Detectable Warnings Everywhere

by Carla McQuillan

Carla McQuillan
Carla McQuillan

From the Editor: Carla McQuillan is president of the Oregon affiliate and a member of the NFB board of directors. Since the public hearing on detectable warnings and audible traffic signals (conducted by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) took place in Portland, Carla played an active part in organizing the NFB's response to the hearing. In the following article she describes what the experience was like. This is what she says:

James Gashel, NFB director of governmental affairs, announced at our national convention in Louisville that there would be a public hearing October 8, 2002, in Portland, Oregon, on the proposed federal guidelines for pedestrian traffic as they relate to accessibility for the disabled. Specifically, we in the NFB were concerned about the proposed requirement to install audible traffic signals at every intersection where walk/don't-walk signs currently operate and detectable warnings at every street crossing nationwide. Since the hearing was to be held in my home state, I felt compelled to contact the hotel to make some preliminary arrangements for the event. I had never even attended a demonstration, much less organized one, but with a few helpful hints from Peggy Elliott, I figured I was up to the task.

After being unable to obtain reasonable rates at the Hilton (where the hearing was to take place), I spent some time negotiating with the Days Inn down the street. I reserved a block of twelve to fifteen hotel rooms and scheduled a dinner for twenty-five to thirty people for the evening preceding the hearing. In the weeks that followed I was contacted by Jim McCarthy, assistant director of governmental affairs, who informed me that the goal was to get 200 people to the hearing. "No problem," I said, swallowing hard: "I'll contact the hotel and see what I can do."

After Sunday brunch, October 6, my mom, my husband Lucas, our son Duncan, and I sat plastering slogans onto protest signs. Lucas looked at me and said, "Well, now we know what the organized blind are doing; I wonder what the disorganized blind are doing." That evening, James McCarthy, Kimberli Sollenberger, and I met in Portland to discuss strategy, write press releases, and contact the media. We walked down to the Hilton to scope out the area and plan the logistics. Monday evening people began arriving for our dinner and strategy session.

 

Nicolas Crisosto, California: I'd been told to expect a dinner meeting the evening we arrived and an opportunity to get some more information about the activities for the day of the hearing. Since I'd never been to an NFB-sponsored protest, I had no idea what to expect. To my surprise the meeting was a full-blown rally with many more people than I'd imagined. Clearly the NFB intended to make its presence known. The evening was informative, but, more important, it was an opportunity to motivate the attendees and remind us all why the issues were especially relevant. The blind needed to speak for the blind, and that's what we were going to do.

"As the logistics were discussed, people kept volunteering, and the energy was palpable. It was fantastic to have NFB members from all over, not just Oregon, getting involved. I was thrilled to find other national scholarship winners representing their affiliates as well. It all reminded me why we need the NFB--to stay connected and organized."

Gloria Mills Hicks, Florida: "The first thing we noticed was how busy and bustling the downtown area was."

 

The energy in the room where we gathered for dinner was phenomenal. Approximately seventy-five people were present, representing fourteen different states. Gloria and Dan Hicks from Tampa, Florida, won the award for having traveled the farthest. It was a great pleasure and honor to introduce James McCarthy to the assembled crowd. He became a member of the NFB of Oregon in the mid nineties. Now he was back in Oregon as a representative of the National Center to articulate the Federation's position on detectable warnings. As I listened to his professional and eloquent presentation, I felt grateful for his leadership and proud to be part of our dynamic organization. The next several hours were some of the most energizing and memorable in my fourteen years with the NFB. We planned our strategy while members put together picket signs, making up chants and slogans in the process.

 

Mike Freeman, Washington: "Everyone left the session with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and dedication to the cause."

 

We met for a continental breakfast in the morning, after which Mr. McCarthy led a small group to the Hilton to sign up to give public testimony. The plan was for the rest of us to follow, en masse, brandishing canes and signs. After closing up breakfast in the suite, I headed downstairs to meet my colleagues in the lobby, only to find it inadequate to contain our numbers, which had spilled out into the parking lot. Carolyn Brock of Portland went around distributing Whozit stickers while other members handed out sandwich boards that read "Jeepers Creepers, Lose Those Beepers," and "Chirping Walk Signs Are For the Birds." Eventually, we were all ready to begin our five-block march through the streets of Portland to the Hilton hotel. I stood at the driveway of the Days Inn parking lot, herding members onto Sixth Avenue. The line of Federationists seemed to go on forever.

 

Mike Freeman: "We didn't need audible pedestrian signals, nor did we need detectable warnings to walk the streets with safety and grace."

 

Caught up in the energy and excitement of that moment, hovering in the world between planning and execution, I believed in my heart that it was really going to work--we were going to make a difference. As the last Federationist passed me, I knew that the beginning of that long line was at least two blocks down the street, approaching the Hilton. Unfortunately, if I wasn't at the Hilton when they arrived to tell them to stop and form the picket line in a circle, they might have kept on going all the way to the light-rail station. Getting a grip on reality, I asked Denise Mackenstadt to bring up the rear and herd the stragglers. I proceeded at a dead run past my colleagues, toward the front of the procession. Just as I caught up with the front of the line heading north, we were met by Mr. McCarthy and the members who had gone ahead to sign in to give testimony. After some brief high fives and backslapping in the middle of the street, we learned that several of our members were now scheduled to testify both in the morning and in the afternoon. The sidewalk in front of the Hilton was a good twenty feet wide. Our members were able to march in an imaginary ellipse on the sidewalk, leaving room for passersby to walk without trouble and without hindering pedestrian traffic. This impressed many observers.

In the beginning some carried picket signs and chanted while others simply walked back and forth across the street, proving to onlookers that blind people don't require detectable warnings to cross safely.

 

Don Burns, California: "While we waited for a green light, a city bus locked its brakes and came to a screeching halt. From across the street a pedestrian ran through the red light in an apparent attempt to tell us not to cross and nearly got himself run over. `The light is red!' he yelled.

"I replied, `I know,' and when the flow of traffic started again, we crossed the street."

Mike Freeman: "Some Federationists crossed Sixth Avenue so that chanting with antiphonal responses could be set up. Such chants as: `Got our canes; got our minds. We don't need those beeping signs!'; `Chirp, chirp, beep, beep! We know how to cross the street!'; and `Light's green; cars go! We can read the traffic flow!' echoed around the area."

 

It was a typical chilly October day in Portland, and many people were not dressed for the cold. Never in that long day, however, did I hear anyone complain or ask to go inside, aside from the occasional "Can I go to Starbucks for hot chocolate? I'll be right back, I promise!" We couldn't have asked for a more dedicated and devoted crowd of Federationists. Everyone present represented this organization with style and dignity.

Occasional reports from inside the hearing room were brought to those of us on the street as Federation leaders testified in opposition to the proposed regulations.

 

Arlene Hill, Louisiana: "In the meetings many blind people spoke both for and against the subject. I happened to be seated by a woman who works on cycling paths for Portland transportation. She was surprised that blind people had disagreements on the subject of detectable warnings. When Ramona Walhof was speaking, she asked if I was in agreement with her. When I said yes, she said, `Good, so am I.'"

 

After a while, for a change of pace, we decided to send members out in all directions to distribute leaflets and discuss our position with the citizens of Portland. Teams went to the light-rail station, McDonald's, Starbucks, and various other locations. We discovered that, when we were circling in a picket line, people were unable to talk with us. When we went out, it was easier for members of the general public to stop us, ask questions, and understand what we were doing.

 

Carolyn Brock, Oregon: "One young man in particular asked for an explanation of our position on audible traffic signals. When I started to explain, he interrupted me and asked, `But how do you know when it's safe to cross the street?'

"`Come on,' I said, `let's cross this one.'

"We stood at the corner with cars passing directly in front of us, and a bus roared by. I turned to my new friend and asked, `Do you think this is the time we should walk out into the street?'

"He laughed and said, `Okay, I got it.'

"Then the light changed, the cars in front of us stopped, and the parallel traffic started moving on our left. `Come on, let's go', I said, and grabbed his arm and pulled him across the street. Safely on the other side, I asked him, `Is that enough, or should we go across a few more streets?'

"He laughed again and said, `No, I got it the first time.'

"Then he thought for a minute and said, `So what I understand is that you people are protesting against the culture of dependency.' Then he was gone. I just regret that I didn't have time to give him a hug."

 

Just before noon, we regrouped in front of the Hilton to greet the Access Board with a boisterous round of chants as they left to go to lunch. Those of us who stayed the whole day went back to the hotel afterward for a group luncheon. While most of us enjoyed our lunch, some of our Arizona contingent continued their march in front of the Hilton. I am reliably informed that a member of the Washington Council of the Blind spoke to the manager of the hotel, attempting to persuade him to prohibit the Federation from demonstrating outside. The manager refused. After a lengthy exchange, the Council member left without accomplishing anything except to alienate the manager. The Hilton manager then shook hands with several Federationists, saying that we were absolutely right and to stick to our guns.

The only time that I spent in the hearing room as an observer was the thirty minutes before my own testimony. Near as I could tell, there were about a dozen council members present in the hearing room and none visible out on the streets. One of the most distressing comments that I heard from an individual testifying that afternoon was to the effect that, if the world was full of audible traffic signals, detectable warnings, and high-contrast signage, those who are a little more shy about their vision impairment could be secretly disabled. I am deeply proud to be a member of an organization that believes in my capacity and potential as a human being. How sad to feel the need to ignore, hide, or dismiss a simple characteristic that in no way affects one's ultimate success and destiny.

It was a long day. As I got on the city bus to head for the train station at the end of the day, the bus driver looked at me and said, "You were in that protest, weren't you?"

I said, "Yes sir, I helped to organize that protest. Would you like to know what it was about?" At that point the bus driver gave a lengthy and articulate response about our position regarding audible traffic signals and detectable warnings. He had been approached by Federationists on the street and had read our leaflets and literature. He said, "It is counterintuitive to say that blind people don't need audible traffic signals, but after hearing your arguments, it makes perfect sense."

 

Kay Burrows, Washington: "I left Portland, tired and sore, but I was very proud to have been able to participate in our demonstration. We were a great example of our motto: `Changing what it means to be blind.' The ten months I have been a member of the NFB have been an exciting experience. This is an incredibly diverse group of people. I am no longer embarrassed to use a white cane. I carry it like a badge of honor. It is proof that blindness is only an inconvenience, not the end of independence."

 

More important, perhaps, than a successful demonstration were the excellent media contacts we established in the process of speaking our minds. NFB members were interviewed by and aired on two TV news programs, KTLK AM news, and two newspapers--Willamette Week and the Oregonian. All of them encouraged us to maintain contact and to notify them of future developments. For the first time in my experience, all of these media outlets were willing to cover a story about blind people's efforts to be responsible citizens, fighting to save tax dollars. Too often we are portrayed, not as participants in life, but as those who depend on the support, goodwill, care, and protection of others.

We made an impact on a lot of people's lives that day, blind and sighted. The man who risked his life needlessly to stop a blind man from crossing the street, the bus driver who no longer thinks audible traffic signals are logical, the young man who recognizes our fight against the culture of dependency, and the hotel manager who supported our demonstration are only a few of those whose lives we touched. One thing is certain--the citizens of Portland will not soon forget the National Federation of the Blind.

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