Braille Monitor                                     June 2017

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Audible Pedestrian Signals, Tactile Graphics, and the Need for the Blind to Get Involved

by Ben Vercellone

Ben VercelloneFrom the Editor: Ben Vercellone is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri Springfield Chapter. He is employed as a mobility instructor for Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, the state agency serving the citizens of Missouri. Ben is tremendously interested in the independence of blind people and the safety of all pedestrians.

The history of the National Federation of the Blind and audible pedestrian signals, or what we once called audible signals, is long. When these audible signals first made their appearance, many of us were critical of them, believing that we could easily tell the color of a light by the traffic flow and that judging traffic flow was much more important than the light the audible signal was telling us about. Because blind people were not initially involved in the design of audible signals, very often they were too loud and too long and actually impeded our ability to hear the traffic. Many of us reasoned that it did not matter whether the traffic light was on our side or not; if we were hit by a vehicle weighing several tons, what the audible signal said was irrelevant.

Over the years the position of the Federation has changed in keeping with the ever-evolving traffic patterns pedestrians face as well as the improved quality of audible pedestrian signals.

At many intersections the choice is no longer to walk when the parallel traffic is moving and to wait when the perpendicular traffic is passing. Some intersections are so complicated that the signals will allow some lanes to go while others are stopped. Some have crossing times for pedestrians that depend on time of day, traffic flow, and whether or not a special pedestrian button has been pressed. For this reason our discussion of audible pedestrian signals is necessarily complex and nuanced. Here is what Ben has to say about audible pedestrian signals, not to be confused with iOS and Android applications of the same name, as daily he teaches people how to safely navigate the streets in Southwest Missouri:

Audible pedestrian signals (APS) have both intrigued and frustrated me since I first encountered them. I cannot remember the time or location where I first crossed an intersection with operating audible pedestrian signals. To date I have only experienced APS at a limited number of intersections. My goal is to provide my opinions regarding what I know from my experience, which has almost completely been limited to Springfield, Missouri. I do not know how many intersections in Springfield currently have audible pedestrian signals. When I recently walked a 3.5-mile route for exercise and exploration, about half of which I had not previously traveled by foot, I learned that there are many more intersections with APS than I had thought.

In my opinion the audible pedestrian signals in Springfield need significant improvement before they will be thoroughly helpful and meaningful for blind pedestrians. I plan to use and analyze APS in other cities as opportunities arise. I expect that there are some differences in the APS from one city to another but that this technology could benefit from improvements in most cities. If the APS in Springfield receive the improvements that I believe are necessary, I will welcome the expansion of this technology and may even advocate for them.

Aside from using a cane or guide dog properly, I generally group the necessary skills for initiating street crossings into three categories. My categories are placement, alignment, and timing. For placement the pedestrian must make sure he or she begins each crossing from an appropriate location. For alignment the pedestrian must insure that he or she is facing the direction of the intended crossing. I believe that alignment is often one of the most challenging aspects in this list, but I will touch more on this again shortly. Finally, for timing, the pedestrian must determine a safe time to cross, and this depends on the type of intersection he or she is negotiating.

Springfield has many lighted intersections with buttons that allow pedestrians to request the right of way and lengthen their time to cross. Sometimes there is only one of these buttons at a corner, and sometimes there are two. This obviously has a lot to do with the busyness of the streets and the way that the city decided to do things. When there are two buttons at a corner, they may be on one pole or on two. It is obviously the blind pedestrian’s responsibility to gather a lot of information independently, and much can be learned through simple and sometimes diligent exploration. The simpler intersection technology just described is much more common in Springfield than the APS.

The audible pedestrian signals in Springfield include recorded human speech, as well as beeps. Assuming the APS were installed according to the rules and regulations, a user presses the button that is directly off his or her shoulder when he or she is facing the direction of the intended crossing and when the pole with the button fixture is between his or her body and the parallel street. Each button has a raised arrow that is easy to feel. The arrow on the appropriate button should point in the direction the pedestrian desires to cross. So far I have only found one instance of what appears to be an inconsistency or a violation of the rules in which a button fixture seems crooked. Still, anyone with good O&M skills can work through this annoyance. When one presses the appropriate button, the voice portion begins. If it is not time to cross, the voice says, “Wait,” and it will say this repeatedly, with an interval of several seconds, until the pedestrian has the right of way. When the pedestrian has the right of way, the awaited voice announcement occurs. I will give an approximate quotation of one announcement I recently heard. "Campbell Avenue. Walk sign is on to cross Campbell Avenue. Have a nice day.” The last sentence in the above quote is not spoken at every intersection with an audible pedestrian signal. But the announcements in the APS in Springfield are otherwise similar in their form.

As mentioned, the APS here make a beeping sound. I have been schooled in the Structured Discovery Methodology, and I could not have received better O&M training. Also, I strongly believe that the audible pedestrian signals in Springfield need a lot of work before they will consistently bring new and helpful information to blind pedestrians. For these reasons I do not use them very much at this point. However, I believe I would use the APS more if this technology is improved.

Back to the beeps, they all sound the same to me in their pitch and volume, regardless of which corner they are coming from. Sometimes the beeps even seem to occur at the same time. These characteristics make the beeps nearly useless when it comes to alignment. So far I have not been able to hear the beeping from the corner I am crossing to until I am at least halfway across the perpendicular street. This makes the audible pedestrian signals useless for my alignment. Obviously I can use the sound of traffic for nearly all aspects of my decision-making at intersections, and this is what I have done for many years. But my point is to explain how I believe APS can be improved.

I am not trying to generate social friction, but I have heard many times that the APS are not necessary for safe independent travel. This may be technically true in many instances. But since we are more than halfway into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and since technology is almost everywhere, I would rather focus on improving the APS technology than tuning it out. The technology is most likely here to stay, and our involvement can only help its development. Sighted pedestrians visually focus on both the traffic and the traffic lights. With no APS, or with APS that are not built well, blind pedestrians can only find thoroughly and consistently helpful information from the sound of the traffic. The fact is that hearing traffic but not having audible information that reflects the signaling of the traffic lights is comparable to visually perceiving only the traffic at a lighted intersection but not seeing the traffic lights. Sometimes we do need to analyze things in this quantitative way, regardless of whether we would personally use improved audible pedestrian signals.

I strongly desire that the APS in Springfield and similar ones in other cities be improved regarding the tones they emit. I absolutely believe that for the APS to be anything more than half-baked, they need to provide helpful information regarding alignment. With an effective system of audible pedestrian signals, a blind traveler with normal hearing must be able to hear the sound coming from the corner he or she intends to cross to before he or she begins to cross.

I do not specialize in acoustics or audiology. However, I know that if the beeps from multiple corners occur at the same time, pitch, and volume, they will not be helpful. In other words, the APS in Springfield need a lot of work before they can help with alignment. I am not sure how important the factor of volume is, but I know that the factors of pitch and timing are extremely important. In fact, there are critical factors in addition to those I mentioned, such as what sound is used in the first place, as well as the tone, timbre, etc. As I stated, I am not an audiologist, but simply a concerned and analytical blind pedestrian. But when this dilemma is eliminated, I will complain much less about APS and will probably use this technology on a weekly basis.

I recently listened to an “Accessible World” Tek Talk episode from January 23, 2017, in which Mike May listed and described some technology he observed while attending the Consumer Electronics Show. The link to the audio file is About nineteen minutes into the presentation, Mr. May briefly discussed a particular narrow beam speaker. I have yet to hear sound emanating from a narrow beam speaker, but from what I have heard, this technology allows sound to travel from a speaker in a very tight angle, even as small as five degrees. A person can listen to his or her audio content from a narrow beam speaker without anyone hearing it from outside the narrow beam. This usually means that anyone to the left or the right of the listener will hear nothing. The last time I did any research, it seemed that narrow beam speakers are largely meant for people who want to privately listen to media in vehicles, office spaces, and elsewhere without needing headphones. Mr. May said that he believes that narrow beam speakers may be helpful when installed at audible signal lights. I am assuming what Mr. May calls audible signal lights are the same as what I refer to as audible pedestrian signals. Mr. May stated that a narrow beam speaker may help blind pedestrians stay in the crosswalk, and I could not agree with him more. If a blind pedestrian can keep the sound from a narrow beam speaker centered, this technology may significantly help him or her prevent, detect, and correct any veering. Assuming the audio technology in narrow beam speakers can be installed in APS, this may constitute one of the best methods for a blind pedestrian to determine and maintain alignment.

If the improvements that I believe are necessary in audible pedestrian signals are made, I would feel increased safety when crossing quiet lighted intersections. I am an orientation and mobility specialist and hold the NOMC certification. I work with Rehabilitation Services for the Blind of Missouri in the Southwest District. I was recently working with a client who told me that he has interacted with some lighted intersections where there is barely any traffic. This client and I agreed that with barely any traffic at an intersection, it would be easier to cross if it was a two-way or four-way stop than it would be if it was a lighted intersection. Unless one is willing to break the law and risk life and limb, one cannot simply cross at a lighted intersection when it is quiet. I am making the case that if some quiet intersections are still designed with traffic lights, they would be easy to nonvisually navigate if they had effective audible pedestrian signals. Furthermore, this improvement in the APS would help greatly when one desires to cross a busy street but has insufficient parallel traffic to reliably make decisions regarding both timing and alignment. At least in the United States, the difficulties arising from little to no parallel traffic may be more common when the parallel street is on the right side of the blind pedestrian. A well-designed APS system could eliminate this difficulty.

Next, I want to address the topic of remaining time for pedestrian crossings. I am almost certain that some APS in other cities provide spoken feedback regarding the remaining time the pedestrian has to cross. However, I have not found this feature in any APS in Springfield. This topic is a no-brainer, so I will move on very shortly. I will reiterate the obvious fact that a blind pedestrian should be able to hear any relevant information from the APS even before he or she begins to cross the perpendicular street. I have the right to know how many seconds remain for me to cross, and it is not good that the technology to provide this information is lacking in the Springfield APS.

I will now briefly discuss quiet cars. I am thrilled that the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations have done the grunt work to pass legislation that will insure that new vehicles emit a minimum level of sound. Still, until all the current quiet cars are either re-outfitted or scrapped, we will unfortunately have to deal with some quiet cars. I believe that well-designed audible pedestrian signals may help blind pedestrians overcome challenges posed by these vehicles. I believe that the only exception to this would be the factor of irresponsible driving. Honestly, we all take risks each day, from the moment we get out of bed, if not earlier. I frequently tell my clients that we must walk defensively, which obviously has a lot to do with environmental awareness and good O&M skills.

Now I will address the topic of intersections with turn lanes, which are an occasional challenge for me and at least a few other blind pedestrians. My challenges are with alignment, and not so much with timing. I specifically have challenges in the beginning of such crossings, when crossing from the corner to the island. As may be expected, I love when islands are raised and have curbs. This 3D nature is not necessary, but is helpful. However, even before I reach the island, I need to be sure that I am headed in the right direction to get there. I admit that this is usually quite doable, though it is challenging at times. The one common thing for intersections with turn lanes, at least in my experience, is the frequent necessity to listen to the traffic of both streets, sometimes for multiple cycles. The purpose of this is to draw a right angle in my head, and go to the inside corner of this angle, where the island will be. This process is time-consuming for me and detracts from my enjoyment of independent travel. Furthermore, it would be unnecessary to spend this much time preparing to cross a turn lane in 2017 if appropriate technology was developed and implemented.

I am aware that for crossing turn lanes, some people just face down the ramp and go straight. I would do this too if I knew that every person always did their jobs perfectly, especially those installing ADA accommodations. But since ramps are not always aligned perfectly, I will never use this technique the first time around and will rarely use it in general. I will only orient myself based on ramps and cut-outs on a case-by-case basis, and this is after I have previously confirmed the straightness of these man-made accommodations by using more reliable methods at these intersections.

It would be quite helpful to have audible pedestrian signals at both ends of the crosswalk for each turn lane. I know that the sounds in APS are every bit as man-made as the ramps and cut-outs. But it is more helpful for a blind pedestrian to have a sound coming from the direction he or she intends to walk than to rely on dead reckoning after lining up with his or her tactile starting point. A basic understanding of geometry will make the validity of my statement obvious, assuming the APS are not placed where the cars travel. Since the APS are mounted on poles, and since these poles are located in pedestrian-safe zones, a blind pedestrian does not need to worry about the APS being placed where the cars travel. To conclude the topic of turn lanes, I will state that having high-quality APS would significantly help when the islands are not raised but are painted.

Generally, I believe that the complexity of lighted intersections is a more important factor than busyness when discussing the benefits of audible pedestrian signals. One occasional exception to this, as previously mentioned, is when the parallel street is quiet and does not provide much auditory information, which can make even a less complex lighted intersection more difficult. I recently crossed a very large and busy intersection in Springfield without the help of APS. This intersection is busy, but not particularly complex. Furthermore, at the time I crossed, both streets were busy, which meant that I had adequate auditory information regardless of which street I intended to cross. If a blind pedestrian has good skills and adequate information, and if anxiety is not an issue, busy intersections are not very difficult to navigate without the help of APS. However, some lighted intersections are so complex with their traffic patterns that a person with no usable vision will have difficulty knowing when to cross and may even have difficulty with alignment if the intersection lacks APS or well-designed APS. Knowing when to cross and exactly which way to travel are critical, and well-designed APS could help greatly with this process at complex lighted intersections. I can already cross complex lighted intersections in Springfield more easily with the help of audible pedestrian signals than without this technology, so long as I can glean the necessary information for alignment by listening to traffic—though I do hope that this technology improves significantly.

One type of intersection that would especially benefit from well-designed audible pedestrian signals is the diverging diamond interchange. According to Wikipedia, the first diverging diamond interchange in the United States was in Springfield, Missouri. It is a radically new type of intersection and still confuses many people, both blind and sighted. I have had at least two O&M specialists describe diverging diamond interchanges to me. I still only have a very basic understanding even after many words and after some personal on-the-ground exploration with one O&M specialist. I am certainly not ready to teach a client how to navigate a diverging diamond interchange, and this concerns me. I traveled through one of these intersections in Springfield, and with one in a different city in Missouri, each on different dates. On both occasions, I received some instruction from an O&M specialist. There were buttons to press that would request the pedestrian’s right of way. But, to the best of my memory the technology in the buttons at these diverging diamond interchanges did not include verbal information and did not have the other characteristics of the APS in Springfield as previously described.

I am reminded of the APS at Walnut and Campbell in Springfield. This intersection is a simple lighted one and in my opinion does not need this level of technology. It would be much more helpful for this technology to be installed at diverging diamond interchanges! I fear that at least some of the time it is simply assumed that blind people cannot and therefore will not cross these intersections. One blind O&M instructor has written in detail about how she negotiates diverging diamond interchanges. However, each of us has strengths and weaknesses, and one of my weaknesses is absorbing new and complex information solely by literary or linguistic means. Though I have not yet found the opportunity, I would be more than willing to negotiate a diverging diamond interchange with the help of the blind instructor I mentioned. Regardless, I believe that diverging diamond interchanges should include audible pedestrian signals that are the cream of the crop! It may also be helpful to use 3D printing technology to create replicas of diverging diamond interchanges. I know that this would benefit me greatly, especially since each of these intersections may be different from the next and since 3D printing is becoming increasingly available.

I must become involved in making the changes I want to see, because complaining is not even at the 101 level, so to speak. Still, my desire is to point out the serious need for improvement. I believe that the APS in my city are half-baked, but that they can be improved. I also believe that once this improvement occurs, APS will make diverging diamond interchanges more manageable without vision. If audible pedestrian signals are designed better, and especially if competent blind travelers participate in this improvement, this technology will grow up to be what it should be in 2017 and beyond.

I am finished discussing audible pedestrian signals. To wrap things up, I will briefly share my thoughts regarding refreshable tactile technology and why this arena deserves our attention and involvement. Interestingly, the most meaningful bit of information I received regarding diverging diamond interchanges was from a very basic tactile representation created by one of the O&M specialists who tried to help me understand this type of intersection. This representation did not answer all my questions, but it was somewhat helpful. Though it was simply made from paper and tape, it is still the most helpful piece of information I have received to date regarding diverging diamond interchanges. I will not get much into this topic, but I encourage people to go to the website of the American Printing House for the Blind ( and learn about the Graphiti digital tactile graphics display that is being developed. I believe that many things will be possible in hardware Version 1.0, so to speak. However, I am also incredibly excited about what almost certainly will be possible in future hardware developments.

I sincerely believe that a picture is worth a thousand words for the blind as well as the sighted. I am not a neuroscientist, but I am nearly certain that the senses of touch and sight are more similar than are touch and sound or sight and sound. Furthermore, much of the information provided to the blind through sound is linguistic, even with most of the latest assistive technology that I know about. In other words, someone must observe an area or setting and put his or her understanding into language. Then the blind person must decode and integrate the linguistic information and hope that his or her understanding matches that of the sighted person who provided the linguistic information. I do not believe I need to explain to other blind people how difficult and inefficient this can be at times. I agree that linguistic descriptions of things are very important, but I believe that this is only one of many tools in the toolbox. I also believe that this tool has been overused in the absence of more creative development.

In my opinion the best assistive technology in the O&M arena is that which is multimodal, such as the Nearby Explorer app for Android and iOS, developed by the American Printing House for the Blind. I have greatly benefited from this particular app. The linguistic information is not the only component of it. The synergy in it amazes me, and I use the app quite frequently. I have quickly learned a significant amount of information at four college campuses in Missouri with no help from a sighted person other than a couple questions asked of strangers along my way. If the Nearby Explorer app only had linguistic information, it would not have been anything new for me as far as learning new places. Even so, refreshable tactile technology alone can bring much needed information to the table and should be promoted and embraced. I expect that the Graphiti, as well as other tactile technologies, will help blind people to understand environmental information in a radically more meaningful, dynamic, and spontaneous way. I can hardly be more excited. This new level of information would be especially helpful with diverging diamond interchanges.

I have heard several blind people say that they do not benefit from tactile graphics. I respect their feelings, but I feel it is important to remember that tactile graphics proficiency requires practice just like Braille proficiency. In the past Braille information has not been as readily available as print information, though with changes in refreshable Braille technology this is changing. Just as important is working to drastically improve the technology for tactile graphics to catch up. When this happens, it will be possible for blind people to become much more fluent in tactile graphics and expand the options for how information is presented to them. At the moment, the Graphiti and the possibilities it offers won’t be available until at least the end of this year, but I look forward to seeing it.

Back to diverging diamond interchanges, I know that refreshable tactile graphics technology may provide significant assistance for many blind pedestrians such as myself. This would be optimal when these graphics can be generated on-the-fly and quickly, such as with a camera connected to the Graphiti or a similar device. When tactile graphics hardware has an instantaneous refresh rate and can show multiple frames per second, this will allow blind people to have a video that can be felt. I know this may be years away, but I want to share this hope and perspective. When blind people can spontaneously gather necessary and meaningful information by touch, we will circumvent many of the obstacles we currently face when sound is not available, not helpful, or too loud. I believe that advances in tactile graphics technology will be extremely helpful for the deafblind as well.

With all of the emphasis I have placed on technology, I want to emphasize that personal competence, good skills, and a positive attitude about blindness are absolutely essential to true independence. Technology is not the foundation of our independence but can make life on the upper floors much more convenient and enjoyable. Rather than taking a hands-off approach to audible pedestrian signals and their tactile counterparts, let us be the movers and the shakers that we are in other aspects of blindness, and let’s change the built environment so that we may more fully live the lives we want. Let’s make certain that the audible signals that have been installed for our safety and convenience are giving us the most accurate information in the most usable methods available.

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