In Light of the Lawsuit Chicago Is Facing: A Few Thoughts on Audible Traffic Signals for the Blind

This afternoon, I took a break from my freelance writing to catch up on some newspaper-reading.  A headline about Chicago facing a lawsuit caught my eye, because the city has definitely seen its share of legal troubles over the last several years.  I thought, "What's the city being sued for this time?"  I was expecting another case of police misconduct, political corruption, or housing discrimination.  But the pending litigation isn't about any of those issues.

This week, the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago, along with 3 blind people who live or work in the city-- filed suit in federal court, alleging that the city has failed to install accessible traffic signals.  These signals emit sounds that let pedestrians know when it's safe to cross.  The lawsuit contends that, out of 2,672 traffic signals in the city, only 11 convey audible information to blind pedestrians.

Plaintiffs also point out that, in 2015, the city received a grant from the Regional Transportation Alliance (RTA) to install accessible signals at some intersections in the Loop.  If a grant has been issued for this purpose, then the funds need to be spent on what they were allocated for, and a timeline, which has yet to be worked out, should have been in place long ago for completing the project.  Also, if any laws or ordinances have been violated, that issue needs to be rectified.

However, the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities is working with the city to install accessible signals at intersections where there is new construction and plans to add 100 audible signals over the next two years.

Here's the part of the article, though, that really concerns me.  The plaintiffs claim that, without this accommodation, they're left to rely on strangers for help crossing the street, or to follow sighted pedestrians as they navigate lighted intersections.

As anyone who's traveled around downtown knows, pedestrians are frequently guilty of jaywalking, especially in crowded Loop crosswalks where hordes of people all have the same idea and figure there is safety in numbers.  Also, it's scary and risky to depend on some one you don't know to get around your neighborhood or find your way to your workplace.

As a blind person myself who grew up traveling the streets of Chicago and regularly using public transportation, I can say that it is possible to get around confidently without audible traffic signals.  There are other sound cues you can rely on-- namely the traffic that is running parallel to you-- to know when it's safe to cross.  Yes, I realize there are some errant drivers and complicated intersections in the city, and an abundance of ride-share vehicles, scooters and bikes sharing the roadways, but the lack of audible signals need not keep blind people from getting to work or exploring the city without sighted assistance.

While in college, I spent a summer studying overseas, in a Norwegian seaside town that's probably about the size of Evanston.  Many of the intersections were equipped with audible signals.  But I found myself relying on the sounds of traffic patterns (as I had been taught to do growing up) and not the chirping of the stoplights.  I still managed to get around safely.

I know many blind people who can get around easily in cities large and small every day without audible signals.  These signals may prove more helpful at some of the especially busy intersections in Chicago where you have four or five streets intersecting, but I know average blind people who manage to navigate them without the assistance of sighted individuals or assistive technology.

My point of this post isn't to chastise blind people who rely on sighted assistance or audible traffic signals.  Rather, I want blind people to enjoy as much freedom an independence as possible, even when the world is not as accommodating as some would like.

There is another school of thought on these matters, put into practice by an organization-- the National Federation of the Blind-- that was formed in 1940, a time when few accommodations of any kind were available to blind individuals.  Blind members convened with the common goal of sharing their insights on what they call "alternative techniques," methods of efficiently accomplishing daily tasks without sight.

Understanding the necessity for blind people to be able to get around on their own, they devised methods for navigating with the white cane that don't involve assistive technology.

This organization has a chapter in Chicago.  When new members move to a particular part of the city or suburbs, members can make themselves available to help the newcomer get acquainted with the various thoroughfares in the area.  Who better to learn from than some one who uses these travel skills on a daily basis?

I'm not affiliated with this organization myself, so I'm not here to politicize it or advocate for it over other groups that promote the interests of the blind.  But I will always support this organization's core philosophy:  That it is respectable to be blind.

While this philosophy probably isn't unique to the NFB, it's from this organization that I learned the cane travel skills that have allowed me to get around new territory, including cities like Las Vegas and Washington, DC, without any assistance beyond occasionally asking for directions.  (These travels happened in the days before everyone had a GPS on their phone).

I'm not saying the city should not install the signals if money has been set aside for them, and if the law requires it.  I'm encouraging blind people not to travel in fear and hesitation, or forgo venturing out at all, as they wait-- possibly for years-- for these devices to be installed.

People with disabilities have the right to equal access and full participation in their communities.  I want to see blind people, as well as others with disabilities, enjoy as much independence and dignity as possible, even when society takes its time in providing accommodations.

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