Tom Bickford (20245 bytes)
Tom Bickford


How Much High-Tech Does a Blind Person Need for Independent Travel?

by Tom Bickford


From the Editor: Tom Bickford is the author of Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane, the NFB's little book of instruction on effective use of the long cane. He is also a long-time Federationist. We all have to think carefully about the issues surrounding audible and vibrating traffic signals. Recently Tom has been thinking about the matter. Here are some of his thoughts:

The best short description I ever heard for a cane used as a travel aid by a blind person was "a bumper and a probe." I am sorry that I have forgotten who said it. Please note: the cane is very low-tech and still very useful. How about a guide dog? A complicated, interdependent relationship exists between master and dog, but there are still no electronics. How about the human brain alone? It is our basic travel tool and is often considered the most complicated work of nature--but still no electronics.

Along with other blind travelers, I recently participated in workshops and discussions with sighted traffic planners, researchers, and O & M teachers. The part that seemed strange to me was that, after the studies were presented and the videos shown, no one talked about how to teach blind travelers to walk straight or work out requirements to cross a complicated intersection. We, the blind, need much more to be taught than to be studied.

Once, when I brought up a point in a discussion, the only solution offered to me was two more electronic devices. Another time, when I described the technique of timing the sequence of lights in order to determine when my light was green, the first response from the travel teachers was, "I wouldn't do that," and the second response was a long list of why timing signals would not work. When I am a student, I do not want to work with a teacher who tells me that I don't have the ability to count seconds in order to cross a particular intersection successfully. I want a teacher who will help me develop and use my abilities in order to make things possible. During one meeting I attended and after another, guess what was on display: audible, vibro-tactile, and talking signs for street-crossing aids.

Please indulge me while I get one of my pet peeves out of the way. Why does the A in APS (accessible pedestrian signal) have to stand for accessible? Does that mean that an intersection without one of these devices is inaccessible? If the inventor had called them alternative, blind people might not have offered so much opposition.

It may surprise some people to hear me say that I am not totally opposed to audible or vibro-tactile traffic signals. I believe that at some intersections there is no other reliable way to know when a light changes. I have used other intersections at which the audible signal was totally superfluous. High-tech equipment is expensive to install and complicated to maintain. If traffic engineers begin installing equipment where it is not necessary or, worse yet, not used, blind people will come to be resented and considered unworthy, and we will lose opportunities to receive the access we really need.

I interrupt myself to say that I know how to play word games. You can play "What If" with me until the cows come home, and I can do the same with you. First, let us learn to live in the world in which we find ourselves. There is just no substitute for thoroughly learning and carefully using the basic techniques of travel with the cane or dog. Just because high-tech has not caught up with all the places I need to go, I refuse to wait at home until it arrives. I was recently telling a bus driver that it might be nice when all the busses were equipped with announcing systems, but in the meantime I had to go to work every day. Neither of us thought to mention that at that very moment I was using the low-tech method of asking the driver if my stop was coming up.

Nowhere do these devices give us more than information. It is still our own responsibility to use that information wisely. I once read an account of a blind man who heard his electronic device tell him that the light was green, so he started right across the street. I do not consider that a wise use of information. We have all had the experience of being kept on the curb during our green light by a line of cars turning the corner in front of us. We still have to use our own brains and exercise judgment.

To my knowledge there are still no standards for identifying either appropriate locations for audible signals or the best sounds to be used and for determining the location of the signal emitters. There is already a controversy over which intersections are appropriate. Sounds range from music to bird calls to mechanical noises to human voices. The location of the sound emitters and demand buttons when they are in use is also open for discussion. As for sounds, I suggest the principle the quieter, the better. I am glad to note that the current crop of sound generators is on the quiet side and can alter their volume according to ambient noise. As for the location of sound emitters and demand buttons, I suggest that they be right at the curb, at the line for the crosswalk and away from the corner. Twenty feet back from the crosswalk and behind a bush are not good places--if the button is going to be at the intersection, put it right where I can use it.

As for locator devices, I might have been glad to have them at two locations during some of our recent national NFB conventions. I refer to locating the right elevator bank and the right rest room. Let us be frank with ourselves. They may be low tech, but we put marshals at meeting room doors for purposes of identification. Can you think of anything that was first scorned, later was considered a convenience, and eventually became a necessity? What about the telephone?

We face one real danger as these devices are installed around the country and the world. The tendency will be to require blind people to use only the places these devices have been installed and prohibit us from using the places they have not. Every time that happens, my mobility is restricted, not enhanced. If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will. You may not recognize the restriction at first because it will come in the form of a kindness. When riding the Washington, D.C., Metro, I have been guided to the handicapped fare gate when it was totally irrelevant.

I want equal opportunity, but I know that the other side of that coin is equal responsibility. It is hard to get out there and pull my own share of the weight, but that is what I must do if I want my equal place in the world. Please forgive me for mixing two wonderfully expressive phrases in the coming sentence. The most important thing that the Federation has taught me is to get up on my hind legs and be a mensch.