by Michael Byington

At the recent National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conference concerning quiet cars, it is my understanding that some of the NFB personnel were advocating that a device be developed for a blind traveler to carry (presumably developed and marketed by NFB) that would let the traveler know when quiet cars are approaching. In other words, the quiet car manufacturers would have to change nothing. The solution proposed by the NFB engineer was that the blind traveler should be responsible for carrying yet one more gadget to alert them about the environment.

NFB opposes the ACB position on accessible currency, and the district court decision in that case, partially because they say that technology is a major part of a viable solution. While they acknowledge that there are limitations to existing talking bill verifiers on the market, again, NFB states a willingness to develop and market a better product for money verification.

What is wrong with this picture? Development of technology to improve access for people who are blind is a laudable and commendable avocation and NFB is to be praised for some of what has been developed through their efforts thus far, but there is an ethical line that has been crossed when technology is developed with a purpose of forestalling true creation of universal access rather than being developed to enhance and foster such access. It seems a clear case of NFB feathering its own nest, with no concern about what is in the best interests of the vast majority of blind and visually impaired Americans. In NFB's world, we do not need quiet cars to make noise so we can hear them coming; NFB will seek grants and development funding to design and build a gadget, which they will then be happy to sell us, thus profiting NFB, that will instead let us know about the approach of the quiet cars. We do not need a money supply which is universally accessible to all Americans, sighted or blind. We simply need to let NFB seek grants and development funding to develop more flavors of electronic, talking money identifiers, which, again, NFB will be happy to sell us so that they may profit.

Now let us look at the travel issues of the typical 21st century blind person, at least as NFB and many sighted engineers seem to wish to define us. Such a person would need to carry a money reader, given that NFB does not feel that there are any accessibility problems with U.S. currency. Such a person would also have the new NFB portable reader with them because they might want to read a menu in a fancy restaurant. I think that reader might have some money-reading capabilities built into it, but when standing at a cash register, it probably would be better to have a smaller, faster, more dependable stand-alone bill reader available. Such a 21st century blind person would probably also have a braille notetaker with him, and probably global positioning software and hardware attached to his body, either functioning with that notetaker or perhaps independently. NFB has also expressed interest in blind travelers carrying devices to trigger accessible signals rather than having the industry standard be that all signals must be accessible by default with locator technology on user-activated buttons. And then there is that audible signs receiver, which would be carried to learn what buses are coming. So far, that is up to six extra gadgets that blind travelers get the pleasure of purchasing just to travel safely and get access to information that is readily available to sighted people with no special equipment. Add to that the use of a guide dog or long white cane, and that makes seven devices. Now to that, some NFB officials and the sighted engineering community would have us add our quiet car locator gadget. That brings us up to eight essential gadgets that the 21st century blind person is supposed to carry for basic access to information. Once we get all of these things hooked to our bodies, we are going to rattle like cans of coffee beans, and we better never want to hug anyone, because we are probably going to be pretty lumpy. Of course, there is the probability that some of these gadget functions will be combined. Some are already being combined, but the more functions built into one gadget, the more problems with maintenance and dependability tend to crop up. The principle here is just wrong.

Why should we blind people have to carry a venerable plethora of gadgets just to get the same information everyone else can get without them? ACB has placed a lot of emphasis on environmental access, and has made commendable strides through the various sub-committees of its environmental access committee. We seem to be the only ones out there doing this kind of focused, inspired work. It seems that NFB would prefer to hook so much technology to our bodies that we all turn into the latest variety of feared robots, "blind-borgs."

Granted, this issue is bigger than that of quiet cars alone. But it is a fair question to ask, and let us never plan to take quiet cars down that road. Ken Stewart and I have discussed this issue on the ACB Leadership list before, but I will list here some of the principles I want to follow in my own anticipated work on making quiet cars less quiet.

1. The sound made by a quiet car must make its sound not only when moving, but when at what would normally be considered motionless idle at any intersection, stop sign, etc.

2. The sound must be standardized so that all quiet cars sound similar to the same extent as all internal combustion engines also have sound qualities in common.

3. The sound should be at least somewhat analogous to sounds other transit vehicles make.

I will elucidate the third point a bit. One of the suggestions I threw out earlier in discussions with Ken was that perhaps an external speaker could simply be required as a part of the car's sound system. My assumption was that such a large percentage of drivers listen to news or music or something when they drive so as to largely take care of the problem this way. I have changed my mind about the efficacy of this proposed solution. Not only do some people prefer to drive without a car radio or other sound production devices running in the car, hearing a loud radio at an intersection would not tell a blind traveler that this is necessarily a mobile object which is going to start to move toward them. The sound produced must be similar to that made by other cars and must be equally directionally perceived. I would suggest an electric motor sound such as is made by an electric lawn mower. Any regulations or laws requiring such a sound must also impose penalties for disconnecting the sound production device or failing to maintain it.

What I am talking about here is not new technology. I remember when I was a child, back in the late '50s and early '60s, one of the most popular toys out was something called a Varoom motor. This was a small device, which appeared to be a motor, and which a youngster could attach to his bicycle. It did nothing to help propel the bicycle, but it made a sound like a motorcycle motor. If we could put this technology in toys in 1959, I fail to see why it could not be added to quiet cars in 2007.

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