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Features & Articles : Solutions and Dissolution : Designing for the Visually Impaired

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What Lurks Around the Corner
Like most things in life, German takes this all in stride. Living alone, taking care of all his chores by himself and walking around his college neighborhood to do his own errands, he has no other choice. He jokes that he is able to stay so slim by darting back to the curb when a car suddenly zooms in his path. But his humorous outlook belies some real concerns.

As we walk under a railroad bridge, German encounters rocks and other slippery debris which cannot be detected from a large distance with a cane. The rocks are a daily nuisance, seemingly never cleared from the sidewalks. "You'd think they [city and state departments] could clean up those rocks but they never do! They're always in my way."

Even larger things loom in his way occasionally. "The other day I walked down here and there was a couch!" German explains. Homeless people and others often loiter the tracks, sometimes using the bridge as a shelter and whatever furniture they come across as their bed, thus blocking German's path. He's been harassed by people asking for money and trying to pawn off radios, but he generally manages to steer clear of them. Then come more obstacles to steer clear of.

Sidewalks are broken up, water meters and drainage ditches are not well marked, posing more problems, which German has learned to cope with by taking extra time. Luckily he's a careful pedestrian and has never been in an accident.

If only motorists were so careful! Although a stop line is clearly marked well before the crosswalk to the Industries of the Blind, drivers ease far past it, often blocking the crosswalk completely so that German can't cross. Aside from the rocks, motorist awareness appears to be German's real nemesis. "There really need to be more signs telling people to watch out and drive slow around the factory area, it being a blind place," he suggests. Currently there is a flashing sign by the crossing guard and a few warning signs dotting the building's parking lot; however, no signs are posted in the crosswalks or near traffic lights to alert motorists of approaching blind pedestrians.

Dottie Neal, a visually impaired social worker for the blind in Guilford County, agrees with the need for enhanced motorist awareness and education efforts. "You're going to be amazed here in a minute," she tells me as we walk through the maze of the multi-building social services complex. She doesn't disappoint. Neal easily navigates the noisy crowded area without the use of a cane. Having worked there for 12 years, she rarely uses a cane at work except in cases of inclement weather, when visiting a client in unfamiliar territory, or as a signal to drivers.

"Basically I need it to tell where steps are, to show people driving by that I am visually impaired-- and that's hard to pick up, because no one understands that white cane. No one. There are not enough legally blind people out there walking for the public to understand what's going on."

Like German, Neal is fiercely independent and travels primarily by foot or bus. An advocate for better transit, she has a keen interest in improving walkways for blind persons as well. "I think my backpack needs to hold a lot of things. It needs to hold a shovel or a rake for the fall of each year because people don't take their leaves off the walk. I might get slapped in the face by a hanging limb."

next page:  Audible signals are one hot issue

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