The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______        October 1997

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PHOTO/CAPTION: Scott LaBarre

 

Signs of Regress

by Scott LaBarre

From the Editor: Scott LaBarre is President of the Denver Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. He is also an attorney with a good deal of experience in protecting the rights of blind people. One can never tell from which quarter the next incursion on our rights is likely to come. That's why it is necessary to be watchful all the time. Here is Scott's story of the problems caused by a well-meaning, determined citizen and the city officials who wanted to be responsive. It never occurred to any of them to inquire of the blind people involved whether their efforts were a good idea. This is what Scott says:

Although the blind have made many strides towards full participation and complete integration into our society, very real and significant barriers still exist which prevent us from achieving true equality. As it has always been, these barriers stem mostly from misinformation and ignorance of the real capabilities of blind people. One of the most devastating misconceptions with which we struggle is the notion that blind people, as a natural result of vision loss, face greater danger and risk while participating in routine daily activities. From this misguided stereotype comes the belief that the blind pose a greater safety risk.

As many Federationists will remember, there was a time when blind people could not buy insurance because the insurance industry thought insuring blind people was far too risky a proposition. It was common knowledge--though there was no supporting evidence--that blind people were at great risk and hazard far more often than the sighted. Throughout this century the issue of safety has surfaced again and again in many guises. Safety has been the excuse for barring us from everything from amusement parks to competitive employment. Several years ago a group of blind people, including me, were prevented from enjoying rides together at a Valleyfair amusement park because park policy required that every blind person ride the attractions with a sighted person. (See the March 1991 and May 1994 issues of the Braille Monitor for the full story.) In whatever form the safety issue appears, we must do our best to demonstrate that as a class the blind are no more or less competent or safe than the sighted public. We must step forward to educate those who have had no real experience with blindness or the actual abilities of blind people.

Last year, right here in the city of Denver, we did battle over the safety issue. The cities of Denver and Glendale began installing signs communicating the message "blind crossing" wherever officials believed a number of blind pedestrians crossed streets frequently. As many know, the NFB of Colorado operates the Colorado Center for the Blind, a comprehensive adjustment-to-blindness training center based on Federation philosophy. The outbreak of these signs expanded outward from intersections near our center's two buildings. Later the city of Glendale, the jurisdiction in which our center leases apartments in which center students reside during their training, joined the signage craze. Both cities announced that increased safety for the blind was the main reason why these signs had sprung up among us. Initially we made several contacts with the City of Denver since the Denver signs were the first to be hatched. Doug Trimble, a cane travel instructor at the center and a member of the NFB of Denver Board, contacted city officials, and a supervisor of someone or something assured Doug that the signs would be removed. It seemed like a victory easily won, right? When the signs did not disappear, Doug Trimble called the city again and again was assured that the signs would vanish. Time passed, as it inevitably does, and the signs still stood tall and announced to Denver drivers that blind people were in the area and, therefore, greater caution should be used.

I then began calling the city and eventually left several detailed voice-mail messages for Brian Mitchell, a traffic engineer who apparently headed the appropriate section of the Transportation Department. When I failed to hear from Mr. Mitchell, I wrote the following letter:

May 3, 1996

Mr. Bryan Mitchell
Department of Public Works
Transportation Division
Denver, Colorado

Dear Mr. Mitchell:

I am writing you regarding certain signs that have been placed near our various properties here in Denver. These signs identify the intersections of Broadway and Colorado Avenue and Broadway and Iliff as "blind crossings." It is also my understanding that another sign is now located at Broadway and Mississippi.

When you and the City decided to place these signs, I am certain that your intent was to help blind and visually impaired residents of Denver. You probably believed that they would make these intersections safer and easier to cross for the blind. We appreciate your intentions, but we want to explain to you why in the long run these signs and other such devices are, in fact, harmful to the blind.

As you know, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado established the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), an adjustment-to-blindness training program primarily for blind adults. We teach necessary skills and techniques, like independent cane travel, that will allow blind people to integrate fully and competently into society.

Generally speaking, society associates blindness with helplessness. Many people who do not know about blindness assume that, if you are blind, you must rely on the help of others. At the CCB we invest a great deal of time and effort dispelling these myths. As you can imagine, such stereotypes and beliefs about blindness lead directly to lack of opportunity for blind people in our country. For example, working-age blind people in the U.S. face an unemployment rate of about 75 percent. This is not due to inability or unwillingness to work on our part but rather to a fundamental lack of understanding about blindness and visual impairment on the part of would-be employers.

In many ways the signs you have placed at these intersections underscore the notion that the blind are helpless. They leave the public with the idea that the blind cannot cross an intersection safely without such signs. They send the message that drivers must look out for the blind because we cannot take responsibility for our own safety. This kind of message runs directly contrary to the perception of blindness we are vigorously attempting to establish in blind travelers and society at large.

At CCB we teach our students effective and safe techniques to use when crossing intersections and traveling throughout the city. The techniques we use as blind people to cross streets are no less safe than those used by the sighted. We do not need special signs calling attention to the fact that we are less safe. If we did require the warnings in order to cross safely, such signs would be necessary at every intersection in the city because blind people travel throughout the city just as other citizens do.

For these reasons we are asking that you remove these signs and return the intersections to their original configuration. We would be more than happy to meet with you and explain our reasoning further.

I have enclosed an article which appeared in the January, 1996, Braille Monitor, the magazine published by the National Federation of the Blind. The article discusses a similar situation which occurred in Minnesota. The arguments which our members made regarding the Minnesota situation apply just as strongly in Denver.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter. I look forward to a rapid response.

Cordially, Scott C. LaBarre, Esq.
Director of Advocacy Affairs
National Federation of the Blind of Colorado

We sent essentially the same letter to the mayor of Glendale, Colorado. In fact the matter was much more easily resolved in Glendale. In response to the letter the mayor invited us to a May 7, 1996, City Council meeting. Members of the Denver Chapter including Dr. Verna Brasher, Debra Johnson, Jennifer and Dan Wenzel, and I attended the meeting and gave a presentation to the Council. After hearing our arguments, the Council voted unanimously to remove the signs. The very next day City workers removed the signs from Glendale. Glendale is a tiny suburb of Denver, having only 3,000 inhabitants. Because there are fewer layers of red tape and entangled bureaucracy in Glendale, it is often much easier and quicker to accomplish a civic goal there than in Denver.

Before completing the chronology of events in Denver I should explain the reasons why the city all of a sudden busied itself installing safety signs. In late 1995 a citizen, not even a resident of Denver, began writing letters and apparently calling city officials. Here are her letters:

Littleton, Colorado

September 8, 1995

Denver Department of Transportation
Traffic Sign Division
Attention Brian Mitchell
Denver, Colorado

Re: Traffic Signs Designating Blind Pedestrian Populations

Dear Brian:

Thanks for a moment of your time to address a recent concern I have regarding our blind citizens. I recently spoke with Terry Surls, in which we discussed this topic, and came to agreement that it might best be addressed by your area of CDOT.

I reside in Littleton and work in the downtown area, and often use the Broadway route to commute north and south to work. In the heaviest rush hours, both morning and evening, I often see a large number of our blind community trying to cross major intersections and catch RTD buses at Broadway, Evans, and Mississippi with only their canes and senses as their guide. The National Federation for the Blind is also on 2232 South Broadway, so this could have some influence on the blind population in this area as well.

It has caused me great concern and anguish recently, as I watch blind citizens straining to listen for the traffic to stop at these intersections and then working their way across them. In addition, I have also watched vehicles coming out of the many businesses in this area, and upon their exit, they are blocking the sidewalk, awaiting to merge onto Broadway themselves. So many times I have really felt the anxiety for these pedestrians, as they have literally felt their way around a running vehicle, to find their way back onto a sidewalk that was intended for their very safety.

Terry and I discussed in detail the options of adding some audible crossing signals at various intersections in this area. However, after lengthy review and sharing our own experiences with the blind population, we concluded that this option is not always in everyone's best interest.

However, an alternative that would help, we think, would be the posting of several signs in this area that at least would alert drivers to blind pedestrians in the area so that they might take additional precautions to watch for them.

I use a similar analogy, Brian, with the "Deaf Child" signs posted for our deaf population. Simply put, they are placed there to keep our handicapped neighbors safe and our driving population more alert.

But they serve a social purpose far beyond the safety of the pedestrian--action from liability suits, and just the sheer anguish of living day to day with the knowledge of knowing you have injured another person. Or even, perhaps, a criminal charge for vehicular misuse.

I sincerely appreciate your time and attention to this issue, Brian, and I look forward to your response. I am hopeful that I will be able to count on your staff's commitment to this public, community, and humanitarian concern.

Sincerely,

Sonja J. Guenther

Littleton, Colorado

December 29, 1995

Denver Department of Transportation
Traffic Sign Division
Denver, Colorado

Attention: Brian Mitchell

Re: Traffic Signs for Blind Pedestrians

Brian:

Thanks once more for your efforts this fall in getting the signs posted on Broadway that designate blind pedestrians are in the area. As I mentioned in our last conversation, I had attempted to take some photos from my car during a recent episode and would send you a copy once those were developed.

The intersection we last spoke of was at Broadway and Mississippi. The photograph enclosed was (through my windshield on a snowy day) taken while I was travelling east on Mississippi, at Broadway. As you can see from the photo, the blind pedestrians are standing on the northeast corner of this intersection and are headed south across Mississippi. There were a total of four blind pedestrians crossing this intersection at rush hour. You can see, too, of course, just how congested the intersection was at the time.

Just after I took the photo, these four pedestrians ran across Mississippi, and then ran west across Broadway--against the light. As you had mentioned to me earlier, you would pursue a third blind pedestrian sign at this intersection in consideration of the recent concerns for our blind pedestrians there. Although it is certainly not the clearest photo, I wanted to send it on to you, anyway, in case you needed additional support for your file.

Thanks again, Brian, for your continued support in this matter. I look forward to seeing our sign soon, and please call me if I might answer any questions for you.

Sincerely,

Sonja J. Guenther

There you have the two letters, and it is interesting to note that just one concerned citizen prevailed upon the city to install the "blind crossing" signs. Neither Denver nor Glendale ever contacted us to discuss the matter and determine whether these signs were truly necessary. Ms. Guenther herself never contacted the Federation to discuss the matter.

Clearly Ms. Guenther was motivated by good intentions to protect what she perceived as our safety interests. She actually followed us and snapped photographs. Again, she did so without our knowledge. I begin to understand a little of how celebrities feel when they are chased by the paparazzi.

Through a combination of phone calls and correspondence we convinced the city to remove the signs from affected intersections. In particular, Councilman Edward Thomas played a major role in advancing our cause. Here is his letter notifying us of our victory.

City, Colorado

May 17, 1996

Diane McGeorge and Scott C. LaBarre, Esq.
National Federation of the Blind of Colorado
Denver, Colorado

Re: Blind Crossing Signs

Ms. McGeorge and Mr. LaBarre:

By now you have received a written communique from Mr. Brian Mitchell, Traffic Operations Engineer, City and County of Denver, indicating a municipal liability concern about removing the "Blind Pedestrian Crossing" signs at (1)Colorado Avenue and Broadway, (2)Iliff and Broadway, and (3) Mississippi and Broadway. The City has not placed such signs at Evans and Broadway.

The signs went up after it was brought to the city's attention that visually impaired pedestrians frequently crossed at these intersections. The signs, of course, are meant to serve a safety function.

Your May 3, 1996, letter to Mr. Mitchell and Federation member Mr. Gary Van Doren's call to my office expressed a viewpoint that, although well-intended, the signs actually are harmful to the blind because they perpetuate an erroneous notion that blindness is associated with helplessness.

I have made Councilman William Himmelmann, District Seven, aware of this concern. South Broadway runs through his district.

However, since you last had contact with my office, Mr. Mitchell agreed that the signs at (1) Colorado Avenue and Broadway, and (2) Iliff and Broadway could be removed. These intersections do not have as high a volume of turning traffic as (3)Mississippi and Broadway. At Mississippi and Broadway he would consider removing the blind crossing legend signs and replacing them with "Yield to Pedestrian" signs.

Prior to making any changes, the City asks that the Federation provide a polling or petition list of representatives from the blind community who agree the signs are offensive and should not be placed at these intersections. Your correspondence clearly states the concern; however, in community-initiated and government-response matters it is customary and prudent to require some sort of verifiable show-of-support, such as petition signatures. You may already have this information on record and need only send it to Mr. Mitchell.

If I can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact me. However, my constituent's concern has been addressed, and I would now refer you to Councilman Himmelmann's Office.

Sincerely,

Edward P. Thomas

Councilman, District 10

I then wrote a letter to the traffic engineer. Here it is:

Denver, Colorado

May 20, 1996

City Traffic Engineer
Department of Public Works, Transportation Division
City and County of Denver
Denver, Colorado

Dear Mr. Mitchell:

On May 17, 1996, I received a fax from Councilman Ed Thomas. His letter indicated that you would be willing to take down all of the "blind crossing" signs at the intersections earlier identified. He further stated that you would, however, need a showing of support for such action from the blind community.

We are happy to provide you with such a showing of support. On Saturday, May 18, the National Federation of the Blind of Denver held its regular monthly meeting, and at that meeting over sixty people signed the enclosed petition. Only approximately five of those signing were not blind or visually impaired. We hope that this strong showing at such short notice will provide ample evidence that blind members of our community greatly desire that the signs be removed.

We greatly appreciate your willingness to review this issue and your effort to understand our point of view. We certainly have no problem with the city's placing a "yield to pedestrian" sign at Mississippi and Broadway. We share your belief that that intersection is more dangerous than the others because of the high volume of turning traffic, but we are pleased to know that you understand our position that the intersection is no more dangerous for the blind than for other pedestrians.

We assure you that the city does not incur greater liability by not placing "blind crossing" signs at various intersections. The fact is that no one can make the world completely safe for everyone. Blindness in and of itself does not make a person any less or more safe. A careless blind person just like a careless sighted person faces great risk when crossing a street. Similarly, blind and sighted pedestrians are equally vulnerable to a careless driver who pays no heed to pedestrians.

Thank you very much for your prompt attention to this matter. We are very glad that you have carefully considered this issue and can now understand our point of view. Working with understanding and perceptive public officials helps us to change what it means to be blind for the better. Please let us know if you need any additional information. We would be curious to know when we can anticipate the various signs being taken down.

Cordially yours, Scott C. LaBarre, Esq.
Director of Advocacy Affairs
National Federation of the Blind of Colorado

One would expect the story to end here, except for one thing. Even though it took only the pleas of Ms. Guenther to have the signs installed, it took a petition with nearly seventy signatures to eradicate the signs. In addition, Ms. Guenther was not yet done with her commentary. When she discovered that the city intended to remove the signs, she wrote one last letter expressing her great concern for the blind and threatening Denver officials and "blind associations" with every serious consequence she could dream up. This is what she said:

Littleton, Colorado

May 15, 1996

Colorado Department of Transportation
Denver, Colorado
Attention: Brian L. McMitchell, Traffic Operations Engineer

Re: Blind Pedestrian Signs at Broadway Intersections

Dear Brian:

As you may recall, I am one of the citizens, along with others and business owners, who had contacted the Department of Transportation over the past months regarding the placement of blind pedestrian signs at the various intersections along Broadway. It has come to my attention that the National Federation of the Blind has recently requested that these signs be removed.

I know that often such requests by the general public are viewed with distaste by various blind groups. They consider the posting of such signs as an affront to their independence, ability, and their need to assimilate into everyday society. Let me assure you my request to post the signs on Broadway was well thought out and comes not out of pity for the "helpless blind pedestrian," or an attempt to stigmatize the blind--but rather out of the respect that I have gained for them and a desire to further facilitate their efforts to merge into society, balanced with a duty to consider the overall interests of the rest of the public at large.

Bear with me while I elaborate on three such individuals I have had the wonderful privilege to have met in my lifetime.

First, as a freshman in college many years ago, I had a blind professor who taught social psychology. She was a talented and inspirational mentor and provided terrific insight to young people as to the needs of the blind. She was also warm and encouraging to those who offered to assist her in facilitating the class.

Next, while performing volunteer work for the Denver Victims Center, I had an opportunity to train for my volunteer position with a blind counterpart. I found her very anxious to allow others to facilitate her needs, while teaching us how not to assume her needs, nor be condescending in our approach. Again, she taught us what a vital and valued member of the community any handicapped person can be.

Lastly, while working with a state administrator, I met a man who had invented a device that would scan book pages, and magnify the print onto a television device--so the sight-impaired could continue to read. As he told us about his invention, it was clear that he did not create it for its revenue potential, but for his mother--who was nearly blind and loved to read. He did it to help facilitate her needs--and to improve the quality of her life. In essence, he did it out of love and respect for the sight-impaired.

In short, by no means were the concerned citizens nor the DOT, ignorant of the wishes of the blind population when discussions on the blind pedestrian signs erupted last fall. Many of us have had both personal interaction with the blind population as well as exposure to organizations for the blind.

The numerous experiences that I had last summer watching the blind cross Broadway were far less than inspirational. They were frightening. In my correspondence with you I'm sure I described the blind pedestrians as they crossed against the light, in front of six lanes of traffic, while drivers and sighted pedestrians watched in apprehension and dread. This situation occurred over and over again last summer, as I drove that route each day from Littleton to work to downtown. Perhaps some of these students had not mastered the skills required to maneuver through the intersection, but whatever the reason, these situations, consistently, exposed both the blind pedestrian and the motor vehicle operator to the ultimate price of a fatality.

It is my sincere intent to at least diminish this hazard to our blind population via the placement of the blind pedestrian signs. The act, in my opinion, is certainly not foundation for a battle of the wills but, rather, a time when all parties need to look open-mindedly at the safety and liabilities of everyone.

I can assure you, Brian, everyone that I talked to last fall at the Department of Transportation were well aware of the concerns of various associations for the blind. Each staff member reiterated to me the importance of the blind pedestrian relying on their own senses to cross through intersections. We agreed that audible signals were out of the question--as it would create just that false sense of security that could be hazardous. (However, in the neighboring jurisdiction of Ft. Collins they do have audible signals for the safety of blind pedestrians at intersections just north of the C.S.U. campus.)

Unlike what some cities in the nation use, the signs that we agreed to are caution-yellow, with only a single silhouette of a pedestrian with a white cane. There is no written verbiage that might be construed as a stigma to our blind population. Again, DOT was very aware and sensitive to the wishes of the blind federation from prior experience with that organization.

There is no evidence whatsoever that these simple signs disrupt the environment that the blind pedestrian still faces when they enter the Broadway intersections. The traffic lights are still engaged in directing the main flow of traffic. I drive through those very intersections every single morning and have not witnessed one driver stop, slow down, or look both ways before driving through a green light. It was never our intent to disrupt the flow of traffic--or the subtle sounds that flowing traffic makes--as we are aware that they are the exact tools that the blind pedestrian must follow in order to cross the intersection safely.

These innocuous signs were adopted specifically so as not to interfere with the learned skills of the blind pedestrian but would merely alert the motorist to add caution when crossing the intersection. It is simplistically no different than caution signs we would place to alert drivers to a railroad track, a pedestrian crossing, a school zone (where we even require drivers to reduce speeds), or a deaf child. Unfortunately, in the hurried rush of our lifestyles today, we drivers must be reminded of our duties to use extra caution while driving.

I am currently celebrating my eighteenth year in the insurance industry, and I would be remiss if I didn't remind all parties involved in this issue of the liability that faces the driver of a vehicle that may strike one of these pedestrians. On a microscopic scale the driver could be found liable and either pay astronomical medical bills through their insurance carrier or, if uninsured, could face personal financial disaster.

In addition, the trauma that the driver faces when striking a pedestrian is enormous. I have personally been involved in cases of pedestrian fatalities and seen the psychological impact of depression and guilt on the driver and their family in the aftermath. All one has to do is watch the faces of the Gates employees standing on the corners of Broadway and Mississippi while blind pedestrians run, against the light, across six lanes traffic, to imagine all of the tens of other witnesses that stand to be affected by just one incident of this nature.

On a more macro scale is the cost of these types of insurance claims, the court costs, legal fees, and the large insurance settlements that are associated with them. All of these costs are reflected in inflated insurance premiums for Coloradans.

But the greatest cost of all is the loss or additional handicap of a viable member of our blind community and the lost contributions they might have made. I am very concerned for my blind friends that in our rush to integrate our blind populations that we are willing to compromise their safety, as well as the financial and emotional security of the rest of the community.

On an even broader scale are the liability ramifications for the city and the blind associations if the signs are removed. They were posted to assist in the safety of the blind pedestrian and the motorist. Once removed, it is very reasonable that legal counsel could argue the liability of the city and/or the blind associations for removing one of the safety mechanisms that may have prevented the incident from occurring--thus leaving the city and/or association appearing culpable in a fatality.

As we look around us, in just a few short years we have made tremendous strides for our handicapped population in this country. We have placed numbers in Braille on our elevators, restructured sidewalks to accommodate those in wheelchairs, upgraded parking spaces, provided handrails--and other accommodations too numerous to mention--all acts of helping to facilitate the integration of the handicapped into day-to-day society. As I travel to foreign countries who lack many of these advancements, I am reminded of our progress and am extremely proud of this country's, and Colorado's contribution to improve the quality of life and the right of all of our handicapped. What may have been forgotten is that it is not only the blind population that have fought for these changes, but the sighted community members and concerned legislative bodies as well.

I am very saddened by those blind associations who may still believe that all of us out here are ignorant and afraid of all blind people or that we are insensitive to their needs. I invite members of associations such as the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado to my children's elementary school to help our children to learn of the abilities and achievements of our blind, rather than to promote what they still perceive to be ignorance and fear of this impairment.

I sincerely appreciate your time and consideration to this issue, Brian. I'm confident that the Transportation Division will give fair consideration to the overall impact on the community of this sign-removal issue. I hope you will contact me if I might answer any further questions for you on this topic.

Sincerely,

Sonja J. Guenther

Ms. Guenther's letter speaks for itself. However, some of her factual statements do not ring true. I have crossed with our students at the very intersection she mentions on countless occasions. I have never observed our students wildly and recklessly crossing against the light. If anything, we often have to encourage our students to move more quickly across the six lanes of traffic so that they reach the opposite side before the end of the green light. When students first come to our Center, they are often fearful of travel and move a mite more slowly and cautiously than is advisable. Usually, after growing comfortable with cane travel, our students assume normal walking speeds.

It is also interesting to note that the Federation, according to Ms. Guenther, could be legally liable if an accident occurs after removal of the signs. She implies that we take the safety of the blind too lightly and thereby needlessly risk the lives of our students. Again, I must state that Ms. Guenther has never contacted us directly to discuss the true safety needs of the blind. Of course we are concerned with safety. We review basic safety rules with our students over and over again precisely because we want them to be safe. Our students do not travel independently until their instructors believe that they are capable of doing so.

The events surrounding this story go to prove that the blind have not yet come all the way to first-class citizenship in this country. Many people still prefer to believe that the blind face higher levels of danger when simply crossing the street. Ms. Guenther's prejudices are clear as early as her first letter. She characterizes the blind students as "trying to cross the street." She goes on to describe them as having "only their canes and their other senses" with which to do the job, and she then depicts the blind as feeling their way around an idling vehicle parked across the sidewalk and "straining to listen for the traffic before working their way across the intersection." These descriptions make clear that this woman filters her observations through her strong prejudice that alternative techniques are stressful and inferior. The irrefutable fact is that not a single one of our students ever had an accident before, during, or after the installation of the "blind crossing" signs. Whether Ms. Guenther agrees or not, calling special attention to the safety of blind pedestrians only confirms society's general belief that the blind are less safe than other pedestrians. The part of society most concerned about the safety of the blind is, of course, the blind themselves. We were not the ones who petitioned for these safety signs. Fortunately, city officials ultimately listened to the blind community and responded positively to our views about our safety.

On many occasions people ask why I give so much time to the National Federation of the Blind. The answer is simple: together we are far stronger than any one of us is alone. Without the collective work of the Denver Chapter, the "blind crossing" signs would still be standing along South Broadway. This incident gave us the opportunity to educate many people and spread a positive message about blind people. The objections of one individual blind person would more than likely have fallen upon deaf ears, but our collective and strong voice allowed us to set the tone concerning blindness in this City. Although the safety issue still looms as a major barrier blocking our path to true equality in our land, actions like those we took here in Denver will help us climb the remaining stairs to full, first-class citizenship.