Do talking traffic signals make New Jersey's streets more accessible?
Despite an ADA ruling, not all visually impaired people want intersections to speak to them.
When I cross the intersection at Bloomfield Avenue and Grove Street, I often feel like I’m taking my life in my own hands. On bright days, I'm unable to see when the pedestrian signal switches from green to red. If other pedestrians are waiting to cross, I tend to just follow their lead. But, most often, I'm just guessing based on the traffic patterns when it's time to cross the road.
So. when I saw that this intersection down the street from my home in Bloomfield was getting a makeover, I hoped that these upgrades would include an Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS.) This device speaks out loud when the crossing light changes color and counts down the seconds remaining to safely get from one corner to the other. Its one extra indication that makes me feel more confident as I amble-out into the street and could mean the difference between making it to the other side or getting mowed down by an NJ Transit bus
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Last year, a federal judge ruled that municipalities that don’t include APS systems at recently renovated intersections are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which turned 32 this month
These devices already exist at some spots in my town. At the six- way crossing Where Bloomfield Ave., Glenwood Ave., Broad Street And Washington Street converge, talking signals are located at each corner. I recorded one of these audible countdowns for your listening enjoyment.
An official at Essex County’s Public Works Department, which manages work on this intersection, assured me that APS devices would be installed. And after the office sent out a rather congratulatory press release in early June that announced the completion of construction on this and one other Bloomfield intersection, I took a walk down to my corner.
I pressed the button, heard a beep and then silence.
I called back the Public Works official to notify him that I’d be writing about the absence of APS systems at the county’s remodeled intersections for my monthly TAPinto column on disability and accessibility. There’s no need for me to print the expletives the civil servant called me, but suffice to say the conversation didn’t go well.
More than three-decades after the passage of the ADA, accessibility is still largely an after thought in much of our built and virtual spaces.
While I’d like to see an APS system installed at every major intersection, not all people with visual disabilities feel the same. After my op-ed came out, I sent it to Carley Mullin, who teaches orientation and mobility in the New Brunswick area. She trains people with low or no vision, like herself, How to navigate the world using a cane and identify other non-visual information, This of course includes how to safely pass through an intersection. Turns out,she is not as enthusiastic about APS as I am.
A shortened and lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below. You can read it or listen to it Via the embedded audio player
You had a chance to read my opinion piece?
Yes, yep. I did,
Was I making too much of a fuss about installing accessible traffic signals?
The county says they're going to do this and they say it's accessible. And it's not, you know, according to the law. And so that's I think, newsworthy because how many times have we heard government agencies, various groups of sighted people say, yeah, yeah, that's good for you. Right? was perfect. And it's like, no, it's not, you know, you just think that. Did you consult with anyone?
Do you think all intersections need an APS, accessible pedestrian signal?
Definitely not. I want to push back against this sort of societal thought process that blind people need APs in order to cross? Well, I mean, we've been crossing streets away before, APS has even become a thing. Sometimes adding extra noise and adding more information isn't really necessary, because let's say you have two busy streets that come together. Oftentimes, you don't need a pedestrian signal to tell you that you have the right away that your parallel traffic is moving on the street that is walking alongside as you cross. I can think of a street right in New Brunswick that they put APS in hearing that from all four corners of the intersection, there's sometimes like just something about the volume and the echoes, it can be sort of disorienting to hear this like, almost like surround sound effect of sound that you're not used to hearing and most intersections, it does, obviously, the exact opposite of what it's supposed to do, which is help you across. I do see opportunities for these things, I just think we need to be strategic and not oversell the benefits of these things, as a way to sort of pat ourselves on the back and not adequately fund access to training, which is what really people need.
So tell me a little bit more than about training in the absence of an APS system. How, walk me through, so to speak, how you get someone across an intersection?
When you take students out for training, they're all using canes, and they have varying degrees of visual impairments, right?
I encourage all my students to use a long cane, and use what's called training shades. So that way, when they're training, and practicing their skill, they're really, really focusing on those non visual skills.
What are training shades?
Sorry, so these are basically like, they go over the eyes. And so they block out light and all visual information.
So completely black out?
Yeah, completely, right. So you're completely using those non visual skills, the first thing you gotta do is you got to find the corner, there are things that they're looking to feel with their cane, that tell them hey, you know what, I've reached the end of the block, and there's something here that I have to cross. It could be a street, it could be a driveway. Then there's characteristics of streets and driveways that they can that I teach them how to detect those non visually. Most of them are tactile, some of them are auditory, some of them involve listening. But let's just say they're now they're at the corner. And they know it's a street using the contours of the curb to make sure we're standing in the right place that's close enough to the parallel street that we can hear the traffic and line up using the traffic, but not so close that there's no room for margin of error.
A safe distance.
Correct. And so that's the first step, we get placement. Then I teach them to listen to parallel traffic. And essentially what you're doing is making sure that parallel traffic is moving directly past your shoulder. Like when it's passing you when it's at its loudest point, it's passing that middle of your shoulder, or directly past your ear. So the sound of the car that's moving in a line is moving straight past you as it's passing you. So just to summarize, using the contour of the curbs to make sure you're standing in the right place, to give you the best possible chance of landing on that opposite corner that you want to hit. And then you're using traffic, often parallel traffic, moving parallel traffic to basically line up and cross straight. Once you understand that basic system, it's logical next steps from that it all kind of falls into place. You just you learn the next step. You're like, oh, okay, that makes sense. Just just tweak this and then it's kind of the same, which is kind of beautiful. Honestly, I didn't know that up until I got this training
you make it sound simple, Carly.
Oh, well, geez, I hope so I have to teach it.
For your students who maybe haven't had a lot of mobility training, they're new to using a cane. They've never donned the training shades before. Do some panic when you put them at an intersection?
If it's a new student, I always start them in a familiar area away from traffic, we're not starting off new the road or whatever. Like we're starting off in a place where we can really kind of feel comfortable to like, explore and learn these new things. The first thing I usually do, I learned about this from a colleague of mine out in Maryland, he talks about how he puts the shades on somebody is just standing, you don't have to do anything, put the shades on and telling everything you can hear, everything. Basically you're just getting them to realize all those things they didn't realize they could hear or that they were hearing the whole time and just kind of pointing out like, look, see, there's this whole other wealth of information out there that we just need to work on teaching you how to tap into, but as you learn to do this stuff, yeah, absolutely. I'll tell you, I want you to put your shoes on for homework and go across the street. So that's how you gain that confidence. That is the best way. If you're doing the shade straining, you would be silly to not practice with shade. You're just be undoing everything you did.
(Transcription by Other ai)
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I understand what Carly Mullin is saying about the APS's, but it just points to the technology not having been perfected or implemented correctly (in the case of volume, appropriate directional testing, other attributes). There's no question training can make a huge difference in people's ability to O&M, but these additional tools are important particularly when navigating new, unknown, not-previously trained-on environments. It just means that we need to work harder to make that technology better so as to avoid confusion.