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Can I Cross the Street? Considerations for a Blind Pedestrian

An Interview with Dona Sauerburger, COM

This interview was conducted by NADTC staff Ken Thompson with Dona Sauerburger.  Dona is a certified orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist, providing O&M to adults in their communities in Maryland and DC. She has had a special interest in preparing people who are blind or have low vision to deal with uncontrolled crossings since 1989, when the death of her blind friends made her realize that the traditional strategy of “cross when quiet” was no longer reliable.  She has done hundreds of presentations and workshops on this and other O&M-related topics around the world, wrote or co-authored dozens of articles and two textbook chapters, and wrote a book about working with deaf-blind people.

You are a Certified Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist. Briefly explain what you do.

We teach people who are blind or have low vision the skills they need to get around safely and efficiently.

How is low vision different from blindness?

Many people think of “blindness” as being totally blind, but most people who are legally blind (having corrected vision no better than 20/200 or a visual field of no more than 20 degrees) have some functional vision.  In addition, there are many people who are not legally blind (they see better than 20/200 and have more than 20 degrees of visual field) but even with glasses, they don’t see as well as people with normal vision.

So, to be sure everyone understands that we are talking about the full spectrum of people with visual impairment, we often say “people who are blind or have low vision.”

What skills do people who are blind or have low vision need to get around independently?

Well, if they can’t see well enough to know what’s on the ground in front of them, they need to learn to use a cane, guide dog, or alternative mobility device to reliably detect obstacles and drop-offs.  Regardless of what mobility device they use, they also need to learn to maintain their orientation using non-visual cues, such as their kinesthetic sense (yes, we have a lot more than 5 senses!), environmental sounds, echolocation (yes, bats and dolphins aren’t the only ones who can do this!), the sun, tactual or auditory landmarks including slopes and ground textures, etc. Another important skill, even for people who have functional vision, is learning to get across streets safely.  More information about O&M specialists can be found at our certifying body ACVREP: Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals.

Is an O&M specialist the same as a Travel Instructor?

Blind man with cane on bus

Photo Credit: NADTC Photo Gallery, Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., Indianapolis, IN

Travel Instructors (TIs – sometimes called Travel Trainers) and O&M Specialists (O&Ms) both teach people with disabilities to travel safely and independently – O&Ms teach those who are blind or have low vision (including those who have additional disabilities) and TIs teach people who have disabilities other than visual impairment.

They each need specialized knowledge to teach their respective populations how to get around safely.  After more than 20 years of teaching blind people (including people with cognitive or other additional disabilities), I was surprised to find that TIs need specialized knowledge that I didn’t have, and you can imagine that teaching blind people to travel independently requires specialized knowledge that other professions don’t have.

UNCONTROLLED CROSSINGS:  You said that O&Ms teach people to cross streets safely. in suburban and rural areas, there are many uncontrolled crossings, such as intersections where there are no traffic signals, and no stop sign for the street being crossed (sometimes not even an intersection)!  Can blind pedestrians manage to cross there safely?

Oh, that is such a great question, and the answer is an enthusiastic “yes and no”!  There are many such uncontrolled crossing situations where people can easily and confidently determine when it’s clear to cross, and many where they can’t.  This is true for people with normal vision as well as those who are blind.

Let’s back up for a little history.  Our O&M profession was established when teaching soldiers blinded in World War II.  Back then, vehicles were all at least 70 decibels – whenever it was quiet, they could all be heard more than a block away.  So blind people were taught that whenever it’s quiet, it’s clear to cross (if a vehicle was coming, you’d be able to hear it).

But oops – this is no longer true, as we found out in our research! (Wall Emerson and Sauerburger, 2008).  There are many situations today where you don’t know whether or not it’s clear to cross, even when it’s quiet!  This is not because of electric and hybrid vehicles (when going at least 20 mph, these vehicles are just as loud as other vehicles) – ALL vehicles have gotten much quieter than they were before 1970.

Warning time of approaching vehicles:  To help you understand the problem, I’ll tell you that in order to know whether it’s clear to cross, you need to be able to detect all approaching the vehicles with enough warning time (for you techno-geeks, I mean that the “detection-to-arrival time” for all the vehicles has to be longer than the time you need for crossing).

For example, imagine you want to walk or drive across a street, and you can’t hear or see approaching vehicles until they appear coming around a bend just a few seconds away.  In that situation, even when it’s quiet, you can’t be sure that it’s clear — there could be a vehicle just beyond the bend, and it could reach you during your crossing.

We call this a “Situation of Uncertainty” – you can never be confident that it’s clear to cross.

What makes it so you can’t hear the vehicles with enough warning?

<sigh> That is the million-dollar question!  I wish there was a way to predict how well the vehicles can be heard in any given situation but alas, there is none.  In some situations, it’s pretty obvious – the vehicles are coming over a hill or around a bend – but there are other situations where we can hear the vehicles far beyond that bend or hill, and sometimes, for no reason that I can fathom, we can see the vehicles long before we can hear them!

AND situations can change!    At a given crossing, for example the two-lane street where a blind man and his guide dog were killed outside of Philadelphia, sometimes you can hear the approaching vehicles several blocks away whenever it’s quiet, and 6 hours later you can’t hear them (even when it’s quiet!) until they are just a few seconds away.

You’re wondering what can make such a difference.  Well one thing is that the sound ­­­level of “quiet” (residual sound level) each day in most communities changes so drastically that you can hear approaching vehicles more than twice as far in the middle of the night as you can in the middle of the day.  And in the summer, leaves on the trees can reflect or muffle sounds; snow can dampen the sounds, and even air temperature can affect how well sounds travel.

Quiet!  And when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, I need to tell you that even in ideal situations – where you can be confident that it’s clear to cross whenever it’s quiet because you can hear the vehicles with enough warning – you may never get that opportunity, because it never gets quiet! Sounds from airplanes or receding vehicles can mask the sounds of approaching vehicles, so when there is too much traffic or environmental noise, or the gaps in traffic are not long enough to cross, blind people will be unable to know when there is a crossable gap in traffic.

There is more information about all these features and more in my online Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students for Uncontrolled Crossings.

Well, what can blind people do when they can’t tell when it’s clear to cross?

They can analyze how much risk there would be if they crossed (we have checklists for features to consider), and decide if the risk is acceptable and if not, look for alternatives, such as

  • Get help (if there are no passersby, many drivers will get out of their cars to help if the pedestrian holds up a sign)
  • Avoid the crossing (get a ride or, if you need to cross the street to catch a bus, get on the bus when it passes on your side of the street and ride it to the end and back)
  • Cross somewhere else
  • Work with traffic engineers to redesign the crossing (bulbouts/curb extensions and median islands to narrow the crossing, etc.)

 What can bus and van drivers do to assist the blind passenger when arriving at a destination with uncontrolled crossings?

If the blind passenger is not familiar with the area, it could help if the driver would explain that the crossing has no stop sign or traffic signal.  In many situations, drivers have helped customers cross, or waited while another passenger helps the pedestrian to cross.

Thank-you, Dona, for taking the time to educate us with pertinent considerations for street crossings by blind individuals at uncontrolled intersections.  Take a look at these excellent resources provided in this blog and below, to learn so much more on this important topic.

Sauerburger, Dona (online)  Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students for Uncontrolled Crossings.

Wall Emerson and Sauerburger (2008).  “Detecting Approaching Vehicles at Streets with No Traffic Control”  Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, AFB, Volume 102, Number 12, pp. 747-760

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