Future Reflections May/June 1983, Vol. 2 No. 3
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by Gary Mackenstadt
The issue of audible street signals has been plaguing blind persons for more years than one cares to remember. Since the advent of public awareness regarding physical accessibility for the mobility-impaired, there have been countless individuals, both in and out of the field of work with the blind, who have attempted to make physical accessibility an issue which is relevant to the blind. Of course, those individuals who understand blindness and who believe in the capacity of blind persons to be independent, know that physical accessibility is not an issue which pertains to the blind. With the proper training in the use of the long white cane or dog guide, a blind person can travel safely and independently in the world as it exists.
In recent years, well-meaning but misguided souls have attempted to modify the world by removing what they perceive to be physical barriers to the blind. The installation of audible street signals has been one of the projects which these individuals have undertaken. For the reader who is unfamiliar with the concept, an audible street signal is a street signal which has a buzzer, bell or bird call, the purpose of which is to let a blind person know when to cross an intersection. The logic of this position is that because mobility-impaired persons need curb cuts to cross streets, it stands to reason that blind persons need audible signals at intersections. Of course, one might ask, what is wrong with listening to the flow of traffic? What happens if the audible street signal malfunctions? What if a car doesn't stop for the red light?
The folly of audible street signals is obvious to independent blind travellers and to those individuals who believe in the capacity of blind persons to travel independently. The National Federation of the Blind, of course, has been in the forefront fighting for the right of blind persons to travel independently. We have been fighting for good travel instruction. Our struggle with the airlines over the right of blind persons to keep their canes on airplanes is well known. We have been in the forefront championing the rights of dog guide users. Repeatedly, we have fought for the right of blind persons to have free and equal access to housing, restaurants and other public facilities. Our struggle, however, has been against discrimatory attitudes about blindness, for negative attitudes and myths about blindness have created the real barrier to blind persons achieving first-class citizenship. Physical barriers have never been a problem for blind persons. Quite to the contrary, efforts to make physical barriers an issue relevant to the blind result from the aforementioned negative attitudes and myths about blindness.
Audible street signals fall into this category. The NFB made its position clear at our National Convention in July of 1982 when we adopted Resolution 82-19. It reads as follows:
Whereas, with proper training blind persons are able to safely cross streets; and,
Whereas, the ability to cross safely is in large part based on self-confidence and the ability to accurately judge the movement of traffic; and,
Whereas, in recent years, many cities across the nation have begun installing buzzers and bird calls on traffic control signals in order to make blind pedestrians aware of the changing of the light; and,
Whereas, these buzzers and bird calls do not provide information which is not already available to blind pedestrians; and,
Whereas, safety is not insured by a green light, but rather through the blind person's awareness of turning vehicles and alertness to motorists who run red lights; and
Whereas, newly blinded persons who are learning to travel in areas where buzzers and bird calls have been installed may become dependent on these devices believing that they would not be able to cross safely without them, thus greatly limiting the areas in which they believe that independent travel is feasible; and
Whereas, these buzzers and bird calls hurt the image of the blind by reinforcing the societal attitude that blind travellers cannot be aware of the changing of a traffic light without special devices or assistance; Now, therefore,
Be it resolved by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this ninth day of July, 1982, that this organization condemn and deplore the use of buzzers and bird calls as a travel aid for the blind; and,
Be it further resolved that this organization instruct its national and state officers to contact local municipalities so as to make them aware of the disservice done to the blind through the use of buzzers and bird calls on traffic control signals.
Audible street signals have been an issue in the City of Tacoma. The issue has been raised by a blind person and not by the City of Tacoma. The National Federation of the Blind of Washington has assisted officials of the City of Tacoma to understand the issue, and I am pleased to report that the City of Tacoma stands with the organized blind in opposing audible street signals. Working together, blind persons can destroy the myths about blindness.