by Sherry Frank
From the Editor: Sherry Frank is a mobility instructor in Pennsylvania. Like many other travel teachers she frequently works with incoming college students to master their new campuses. The following article describes a problem becoming more and more common. She does not offer a solution, and indeed probably no one solution is possible. Confidence and creativity, as always, lie at the heart of every mobility solution. That said, it is useful to consider her point that accessible spaces for people with orthopedic impairments are generally less accessible for travelers using white canes and guide dogs. This is what she says:
Learning to travel independently around an unfamiliar college campus is challenging, even for a skilled veteran cane traveler. Recently a graduate student needed to be oriented to a new college campus, and, though she was an expert independent traveler, this proved to be complicated and extremely frustrating. The university in question is rated #5 on the list of most handicapped-accessible universities in the U.S. However, as this student observed, handicapped-accessible refers primarily to wheelchairs, and, if an environment is wheelchair accessible, it tends to be visually impaired inaccessible.
In order to make an area wheelchair accessible, architects create lots of wide open spaces so that wheelchairs will not bump into obstacles. On the streets they make wide curb cuts so that the chairs can cross the street more easily and in more places. Sidewalks are often as wide as ten feet or more, and tend to run seamlessly into the street. Landmarks are frequently removed because they get in the way of wheelchairs. Blind travelers use landmarks to maintain orientation as they travel. Examples are trees, street signs, trash cans, sidewalks with grass shorelines, etc.
The college student with whom I was working needed to travel to a building a long way down one street. She found that her only sensible option was to follow the curb. She learned to count the curb cuts along the way in order to find her destination. This was difficult, however, because some of the curb cuts were twenty to thirty feet long. When she came close to the building she was looking for, she could usually rely on traffic sounds, the voices of students, and the sounds of doors opening and closing to provide directional guidance to the building’s entrance. However, these cues were often absent between classes and in the evenings.This student learned to find her way from her dormitory to the student center, dining hall, classroom buildings, and bus stop. Negotiating this college campus was challenging for her to learn and for me to teach. Ironically, we both concluded that it would have been a great deal easier for a visually impaired traveler to negotiate a campus that was not handicapped accessible. The time has surely come for students, faculty, and university administrators to work together with engineers and landscape designers to devise ways to provide cues for blind travelers that do not complicate the lives of wheelchair users as well as barrier-free pathways that do not provide hazards to blind travelers.