walkinginfo.org -> part of the pedestrian and bicycle information center

go back

printer version
insight : features & articles : solutions and dissolution

Designing for the Visually Impaired

By Rebecca Johnson

The Daily Commute
It is 4:00 p.m. at the Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, N.C. and the 125 employees--70 of whom are visually impaired-- pour out of the doors, talking and laughing.

"Who's out here looking at me? Is it the FBI? The police?" jokes one man as he finds his way to a waiting van outside with the aid of a white cane.

"Shoot, no one wants to look at you!" comes the teasing retort from a fellow worker, as she piles into another van. A small fleet of buses and vans, some of them driven by family members, some by the city's paratransit vehicles, greets the workers just outside the door of the building. At the end of the block, a crossing guard signals traffic on Lee Street, a busy stretch of road that runs from the Interstate through downtown Greensboro and along the city's most developed strip of hotels, shopping and restaurants. Most of the workers at the Industries of the Blind choose, for their own various reasons, not to brave this piece of road on foot. Charles German is one exception.

As the vans pull away from the curb, the older gentleman whips out his own white cane and hangs a left, setting out for home, which is three blocks away. After completely losing his sight due to complications from a truck driving accident in 1962, German, an assembler at the factory, learned to live and ambulate independently.

"Charles is one of the few workers who commutes on foot," says Annette Clinard, Personnel Administrator. "And believe me, we just hold our breath every day as we watch him cross that intersection."

The intersection Clinard refers to is a T-crossing linking Lee Street to another heavily trafficked part of town---the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although a sign warns motorists not to turn right on red, few obey the rule, making German's crossing a real gamble.

"Do you know they don't pay that sign any mind? Back when I could see, I remember that the driving book said when somebody's walking in the road to give them the right of way. Is it still like that?" he asks plaintively. Obviously his experience has been to the contrary. "It takes a lot of nerve to get out in that!" he says, gesturing toward the crosswalk, but smiles as he listens for stalling traffic.

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."

To Beep or not to Beep (or to Chirp or Whistle?)

Audible signals are one hot issue in the visually impaired community. "A major problem for vision impairments is the decision process in crossing the road," says Lois Thibault, Transporation Researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Access Board. "Sighted pedestrians get information from the pedestrian greens that signal before the vehicle greens are given." To give visually disabled pedestrians the same access to this information, many cities have implemented audible signals.

Although many have found sound cues-- such as beeps, tones, or chirping noises-- to be helpful in signalling safe crossing, many who responded to the National Association for the Blind's survey voiced opinions to the contrary. Some were unable to localize the sound and confused it with another intersection. Some found it difficult to distinguish the sound at all during periods of heavy traffic. And some literally thought the sound was a real bird!

Dottie Neal is among those who find the the chirping cues to be detrimental. "If you're not trained in mobility anyway, you're not going to be able to use those. . . You really need good mobility training and even then it can be dangerous. There's only one place I've found that sound source to be helpful in my experience. When I lived in St. Louis there was a T intersection where they used it. All the traffic stopped in both directions so you knew you could cross. And everybody knew about it, it was a generally known thing."

Many transportation researchers agree that chirping signals may not be the answer. But other audible signals may be- if used correctly. Says Lois Thibault, "One of the current bees in my bonnet is the lack of usable information for visually impaired pedestrians. This survey and others like it [finding that signals are confusing] simply show that more information—more salient, consistent, standardized information is required. The reasons that it is not is that we as an industry have not really looked at these needs. It used to be that we looked at factors in transportation depending on how many people they were relevant to. In doing so, we ignored a significant portion of the population. "Sidewalks and street crossings are confusing enough for all of us. The right of way is not clearly defined. Most blind people don't get mobility training. To expect them to be accustomed to the differences in the ways that audible cues and other devices are used all over the country is just unrealistic."

Transportation facilities for the visually impaired vary hugely from city to city. Where some cities may have a few isolated intersections with audible cues or pedestrian "walk" buttons, others have highly advanced, user-friendly systems.

Both Thibault and Barbara McMillen, Transportation Specialist for the FHWA's Environmental Planning, commend the city of San Francisco, Calif. for their easy-to-use transportation facilities. "San Francisco has installed talking signs in their BART system and in downtown street crossings. They list street names and tell pedestrians when it's safe to cross. Municipal building signs list the names of the tenants on each floor. The talking signs are an expensive system to install, however. Cities should make sure that improvements work with their existing systems."

McMillen notes other cities with better facilities systems for the visually impaired, such as Austin, Tex. for its willingness to experiment with latest research improvements, Seattle, Wa., for its geometric layout, and Clearwater, Fla., a smaller city that has recently installed audible signals.

Transportation Enhancements: A Crutch or an Aid?
More sensitive and potentially controversial concerns that crop up when designing for visually impaired pedestrians have to do with political issues and awareness. Certainly blindness, color blindness and visual impairments are largely misunderstood. This misunderstanding is unfortunately often reflected in inconsistent design.

As social worker Dottie Neal notes, "We really need more standardized training. Good mobility instruction and how the instruction can teach you to make one situation work in other situations. We also need much better driver awareness. People just don't know what that white cane means. People don't know what blindness is about. They may look at me, walking around here and then see me with a cane one day and say oh she doesn't need a cane. They may think I'm lying. Blindness is not a black and white situation. There are so many shades of gray."

One controversial view held by the National Federation of the Blind, an outspoken association representing a smaller percentage of the visually impaired, suggests that transportation enhancements may give off the impression that visually impaired persons are helpless.

Lois Thibault counters: "I think it's a spurious issue and I think people who suggest that are doing a disservice to the visually impaired. It's important that everyone have equal access to the same information."

But some visually impaired advocates like Dottie Neal subscribe to this view vehemently. "If people have to think about installing those things [pedestrian enhancements] in a general public then what do they think about installing it in a workplace? How much money do they think they have to spend if they get a visually impaired or otherwise handicapped person to work? It's not, I think, portraying a good image for the work situation for a disabled person. They make the image of a visually impaired person be more dependent and needy, if you will."

Transportation specialist Barbara McMillen disagrees, saying, "That way of thinking is held by a small minority. First of all, people need to have some sort of information to get across. Secondly, these facilities can be funded by almost every federal highway agency through ISTEA. It is a general misconception that federal funds are not there. The truth is that there is generally only a 20% match required of local organizations."

Representatives of the research, professional, and the blind community are no more likely to come to a consensus on these issues than any other pedestrian group. Designing for the visually impaired introduces complicated and weighty issues. Engineers and planners these days have a lot more to grapple with than in the postwar years when highway development simply meant more and better roads for cars and drivers.

But until our roadways are safe for both motorists and all types of pedestrians, emphasizes LoisThibault: "Nothing is more important than providing the information you need to step off a sidewalk with confidence. I think we're asking a lot of blind and visually impaired pedestrians to go out and risk their lives every day."



The Accessible Design for the Blind's report on Accessible Pedestrian Signals.

The Access Board regularly provides training sessions on mobility. A set of training videotapes suitable for independent use is also available on loan. Contact Peggy Greenwell, Training Coordinator at the Office of Technical and Information Services or by e-mail at training@access-board.gov.