Blind pedestrians gain support from federal judges

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: February 15, 2024

Recent court cases in Chicago and New York ordered those cities to install accessible pedestrian signal (APS) devices. These devices are posted at pedestrian crossings, with buttons that activate verbal prompts for blind and visually impaired persons to know when it is safe to cross. Defendants for these cities had previously argued that blind pedestrians could still cross without APS support, and that there is no federal law compelling them to be installed. Until recently, the American blind community was also conflicted about the usefulness of these devices.

The first APS devices appeared in the US as early as the 1920s and became widely available in the 1970s. These devices, based on Japanese devices, emitted audible “cuckoo/cheep signals” and were connected to pedestrian crosswalks Instillation of these early devices was controversial among blind communities in the US: the American Council of the Blind (ACS), advocated for APS devices to be installed at all intersections, while the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) opposed them, arguing that they weren’t helpful and made blind and visually impaired persons appear incapable of travelling independently.

“Traditionally, blind and visually impaired pedestrians are taught to use the sound of parallel traffic, beginning to know that it’s safe to cross,” explained Barbara Rosenblatt, MED, a Certified Orientation Mobility Specialist. “Alternatively, they are taught to solicit and use assistance from sighted people who are crossing the street,” she said.

Today, APS devices give provide specific auditory, tactile, and/or vibrotactile information for pedestrians. Some systems connect to an additional speaker across the street, which can be used as a beacon.

The complex argument against NFBs

In 1983, the NFB published a resolution explaining that traffic signals that only emit “buzzers and bird calls”, while well-meaning, do not provide blind and visually impaired people information that they don’t already have access to from listening to the traffic. Further, the resolution argued that these signals brought negative attention to blind and visually impaired people.

“The folly of audible street signals is obvious to independent blind travelers and to those individuals who believe in the capacity of blind persons to travel independently,” wrote Gary Mackenstadt in his introduction to the resolution.

But since then, the design of traffic intersections has gotten increasingly complex. Ben Vercellone, a former president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri Springfield Chapter, and a mobility instructor for Missouri’s Rehabilitation Services for the Blind reflected on how safely navigating streets as a pedestrian is a growing challenge.

“At many intersections the choice is no longer to walk when the parallel traffic is moving and to wait when the perpendicular traffic is passing. Some intersections are so complicated that the signals will allow some lanes to go while others are stopped,” he wrote in the Braille Monitor in 2017.

Contemporary guidance

In his 2021 ruling compelling New York City to install at least 10,000 APS devices at signaled intersections by the end of 2031, US District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer highlighted that APS devices themselves and how they are used have evolved.

“Today, there is widespread technical know-how as to the design and installation of APS and their integration into traffic design. Mature systems are in place to train blind persons to use APS effectively. APS have been widely installed in other American cities,” he wrote.

In Chicago, where  only 36 APS devices had been installed on its 2,800 intersections that have visual pedestrian signals, disability advocates sued the city, arguing that this violated ADA compliance. In her 2023 decision, US District Judge Elaine Bucklo referenced Judge Engelmayer’s summary judgement.

 “Individuals with vision difficulties—who number over 65,000 in Chicago and over 111,000 in Cook County according to recent census—face unique challenges when it comes to navigating the City’s busy sidewalks and streets safely as pedestrians,” she wrote.

Accessible Pedestrian Signals: A Guide to Best Practices, which was developed under the sponsorship of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, provides a detailed summary to assist practitioners when evaluating how to best implement APS devices. The US Access Board also published guidance on APS technologies.


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