Picture of Marc Maurer

Marc Maurer

Blindness, Travel, the Environment, and Technology

by Marc Maurer

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Recently in connection with work of the World Blind Union I traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to participate in meetings of the Executive Committee. I stayed at a facility operated by the Swedish Association for the Blind called Almasa. It is on the Baltic Sea several miles outside Stockholm. It consists of a number of buildings, some of which contain sleeping rooms. There are also a beach; a dock; a building containing a shooting range; and a substantial facility housing meeting rooms, administrative offices, dining facilities, and other accommodations. Almasa is located in a rural setting. Not only is it in the country, but it is several miles off the main highway.

Because many of the people using Almasa are blind, the Swedish have installed devices that produce a number of different sounds to assist in guiding blind residents from one building to another. One of these sounds reminded me of the noise created by a tennis racket hitting a tennis ball. Another was a slight intermittent buzz. I did not count the variations in tone and sound patterns, but I believe five or six different kinds of noise may have been produced by these audible signs at Almasa.

When we went into Stockholm to explore the city, we found audio pedestrian signals incorporated in traffic lights. These had two different sound patterns associated with them, which not only indicated to the pedestrian when the signal was appropriate to cross the street, but also specified the direction of the crosswalk. Both the audible signs at Almasa and the audible traffic signals in downtown Stockholm produced unobtrusive sounds.

One of the advantages of participating in the World Blind Union is learning about the methods and techniques used by the blind of other countries to address the problems blind people face everywhere. How can blind people best travel, communicate with others, interact with different parts of society, earn a decent living, and manage the hundreds of details of life with efficiency and ease? It is good to compare the techniques we use in the U.S. with those used in other lands. Sometimes the techniques used by others are worth using here. Whether they are or not, it is good to know about them.

As I observed the audible signals to assist the blind with travel in Sweden, I wondered whether such devices offer enough benefit to be used in certain places in the U.S. Some people believe that audible traffic signals are vitally important to the blind; other people believe passionately that they should never be used. For my own part I don't know enough to form a firm opinion. I think some audible traffic devices are not only objectionable but also dangerous. However, I am not convinced that all of them are, and I wondered what we might learn from the experience of the blind in Sweden.