by Ken Stewart
It was just a coincidence that the meeting was on Valentine's Day. But the subject of it was certainly close to the hearts of those in attendance.
Guide Dog Users of New York chose that evening for one of its regular meetings for the convenience of members only because of other commitments on other evenings. I had been invited to make a presentation on accessible pedestrian signals. While completing the arrangements for my appearance, I requested and was immediately granted permission to invite a representative from each of the other organizations representing the blind community in the New York City area. GDUNY president David De Porte and I were quite pleased when president Karen Gourgey arrived to represent the local American Council of the Blind chapter, and equally pleased when president Ray Wayne arrived representing the local National Federation of the Blind chapter. Added to the GDUNY president and myself, president of the local CCLVI chapter, we were up to four presidents, but that was not all. Mike Godino, president of the state ACB affiliate, was also present!
What followed was a very harmonious and focused consideration of a subject obviously at the top of every blindness organization's priorities. Factual information about APS devices was provided, along with a brief history of installations locally. With GDUI members participating as equal voices to "The Brass," attendees developed a strategy for moving forward expeditiously. A compilation of the most urgent sites would be created and provided to the city's Department of Transportation. That list, as already agreed between the DOT's Signals Division Director and myself, would be accompanied by the criteria we were using to weight the relative importance of each of the nominees.
The Saint Valentine's Day Mass Accord identified intersections with unconventional geometry, with a high portion of turning vehicles, with a low volume of pedestrians, and intersections close to popular destinations for blind pedestrians. One mid-block pedestrian crosswalk also made the short list by virtue of lacking parallel traffic sounds coaching a blind pedestrian when to cross.
The history of accessible pedestrian signals in New York City heard by attendees that February evening began in June of 2004, when the first one was installed in Manhattan, as described in "On The Avenue, Sixth Avenue" ("The Braille Forum," September-October 2004). Lighthouse International took the initiative to get APS devices at the intersections nearest to their facility. Since then the city has been responding slowly to other requests. To date there are only 10 sites signalized around the four boroughs, generally selected due to proximity to facilities frequented by people who are blind and visually impaired. When I met with the signals division director late last year, he expressed willingness to accelerate installations. He also expressed a desire to get our help in deciding where to go next. He gave no indication of any budgetary restraints on the program, and so, declined my offer for us to go higher up in the city administration to seek support for his division's work. I am now optimistic that the prioritized list of additional sites will move things forward promptly. The signals division director now has strong evidence the blind community is speaking with one voice, one strong voice. And we stand ready to assist in the decisions about where to go next.
There also was consensus at the Valentine's Day meeting that users prefer devices that provide minimal non-visual information during every walk cycle, provided without any need for pedestrian actuation. The verbal information is added to the always available vibrating arrow and rapid clicking whenever the button is pushed. Subsequent to the meeting, I was assured by Polara's representative that its product could be programmed in the preferred manner. Over the past several years, I had been getting mixed messages on that point.
While talking with that Polara rep, I learned that the vendor retained responsibility for servicing the devices. He himself has been responding when one of the APS boxes is not working properly. He described finding a paper plate or other trash wedged in between the device and its support. He believed those were simply pranks. My guess was that they were symptomatic of someone protesting when the locator tone was inappropriately loud.
At press time, further input has come from the partnering organizations, creating a final version of our list of highest priority sites, and other sites ready for submission. And the director of the New York City Department of Transportation's Signals Division has confirmed receipt of the first list, and confirmed that site inspections have already begun. Now we must attempt to confirm with our contact at another city agency, the Department of Design and Construction, that our earlier request to include APS infrastructure is indeed being included when major street renovations begin.
Some at the meeting may have been pleasantly surprised to find the NFB present and joining the project effectively; I was not. In the last several years, I have always been treated hospitably when I attended an NFB chapter meeting to discuss any of my transportation advocacy notions. I recall vividly getting a spontaneous round of applause when I made a tangential reference to my federal litigation about bus driver non-compliance with the federal mandate to announce major stops. In fact, I had recruited one of my two witnesses in that case from an NFB meeting. When it comes to pedestrian signals, my impression is that most NFB members in this area and most ACB members too have similarly negative opinions about the worst examples of the early generation of audible signals, and similarly favorable opinions on the best of the latest generation of accessible pedestrian signals.