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Designing for Pedestrians with Disabilities:  Cognitive and Developmental

Hypothetical situation: Dana, a mentally retarded woman, is walking back to her group home from her job at a local secondhand shop. Although this is a familiar trip for her, Dana decides to stop by at a shoe store on her way home. This means she'll have to take a different route to her final destination.

Like all persons with cognitive disabilities, Dana has a diminished ability to quickly and efficiently digest information and make good decisions. This type of impairment can impact the reaction time that may be assumed for specific pedestrian operations. A cognitively disabled person may not process the WALK signal as quickly as another pedestrian. He or she may not readily understand messages that are provided for pedestrians.

Dana comes to a busy, noisy four-way intersection where flashy advertisements and signs decorate buildings. There is a traffic jam downtown today. Kids are walking home from school running and joking around and yelling at each other loudly. Cars are blasting music from their stereo systems and honking at other drivers.

When the light flashes "WALK" it takes a moment for Dana to register this and to feel safe to walk, especially as cars are edging into the crosswalk, trying to turn right on red. She feels pressured to cross, although among the other signs and chaos, she can't find the street sign to confirm that this is the way she should go.

Although Dana is fictitious, her experience is among the everyday challenges that persons with cognitive disabilities face when they become pedestrians in traffic. Because the cognitively disabled population is largely pedestrian, it's important that their needs be taken into consideration when designing pedestrian facilities.

These needs are just as varied as the cognitively disabled population itself, points out Billy Moseley, a coordinator at Access in Morganton, N.C. Access is a private provider of periodic services for the cognitively disabled. With goals ranging from community inclusion to supportive employment, Access is one of many programs and group homes across the country that help allow cognitively disabled persons to live more independently.

"We're with some of our clients 24 hours a day, but some of them only need us for 2 hours," says Moseley. In this small town where there are no city buses, Access will provide transportation as needed. However, many clients who have jobs commute to work on foot or via wheelchair.

More sidewalks are an ever-present need. "A month and a half ago, we had a guy who was struck by a car and injured while walking on the edge of a road," Moseley says. "There was not enough space between the white line on the street and the automobile lane, so the accident probably happened as a result of both the pedestrian being confused and the driver going too fast." Moseley would like to see additional sidewalks or at least wider areas by the side of the road.

Quite a few of the special pedestrian needs of children also apply to the cognitively disabled, many of whom function at a child's level of development. For example, members of this group may be easily distracted or less apt to heed traffic warnings and other signals.

"Longer street crossing times would also be a big help," Moseley notes. Many of his clients have mobility disabilities as well and especially need the extra time and curb ramps for safe crossing. "I'd also like to see larger street signs. While you have big red stop signs, the street name signs next to them are a good deal smaller, and often hard to see or pick out among other things in the street. It can be confusing for someone with a cognitive or developmental impairment."

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