Why the Pandemic Has Made Streets Extra Harmful for Blind Folks

For pedestrians who cannot see or have limited visibility, navigating the chaotic sidewalks and zebra crossings of New York City before the pandemic was difficult enough. But the outbreak, blind people say, has made crossing the city streets even more risky and frightening.

It has at times reduced the flow of cars and trucks, leaving the streets in some parts of the city as quiet as suburban streets. That may sound like a blessing to blind New Yorkers like Terence Page.

In fact, the opposite is true. The normal roar of passing traffic provides – often the only – clues as to when it is time to venture onto a zebra crossing.

“Quiet is not good for the blind,” said Mr. Page as he swept his long green cane across the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and tried to find the curb on West 23rd Street.

But Mr. Page had just crossed the avenue with confidence because the intersection has an audible signal to let pedestrians know when they are allowed to cross the sidewalk. The vast majority of the city’s 13,200 crossings are not, including the one on 23rd Street that Mr. Page faced after crossing Sixth Avenue.

As a result, a federal judge has found that the city did not fully protect some of its most vulnerable residents.

The judge ruled in October that the “almost complete absence” of these devices – known as accessible pedestrian signals – violated the civil rights of blind people by denying them equal access to the city’s zebra crossings.

Blind New Yorkers “must risk being hit by cars and bicycles and stuck in the middle of intersections,” wrote Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the Federal District Court in Manhattan.

Mr. Page, six feet and sturdy, knows exactly what the judge described. Mr. Page stood on the northeast corner of the normally busy intersection and hesitated. Without an audible device, blind pedestrians like him have to guess when to have the light.

“I know I am in control of my life,” said Mr. Page as he prepared to step off the curb half a block from his house.

The court ordered the city to negotiate a remedy for the absence of audible signals with the group that filed the lawsuit, the American Council of the Blind of New York. This decision was welcomed by Mr. Page and supporters of the Blind, who for years have urged city officials to address the issue.

“We are excited about the dramatic changes this win will mean not just for the blind or partially sighted, but for all New Yorkers who want safer streets,” said Torie Atkinson, attorney with Disability Rights Advocates plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed in 2018 has been.

City officials declined to explain why audible signals were installed at fewer than 5 percent of the city’s intersections with traffic signals.

Instead, Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, made a statement: “The city is committed to making our streets more accessible to all New Yorkers, with and without disabilities, including those who are blind or partially sighted.” He added added that the Ministry of Transport plans to continue installing acoustic signals throughout the city.

Since 2014, the city has had a Vision Zero policy to reduce pedestrian deaths, which includes redesigning intersections and signals. However, proponents argue that some of these changes have actually made the situation worse for the blind.

The Ministry of Transport has introduced “leading pedestrian intervals” at some intersections, which give hikers a head start of several seconds before the traffic light for parallel traffic turns green.

But Lori Scharff, former president of the American Council of the Blind of New York, said that didn’t help them because they rely on traffic noise indicators. Without the roar of the engines in motion, they stop at the curb while sighted people rush across the street, said Ms. Scharff.

When in doubt, they can often rely on other pedestrians to offer guidance or an elbow to grip. But in the grip of Covid-19, fellow travelers are less apt to get that close, Mr. Page said.

“There are fewer people who want to help you or even touch you,” he said. “Since Covid happened, many things that the blind need are not there.”

To make things more difficult, the sidewalks and streets are filled with new obstacles: dining tables surrounded by makeshift fences and tents.

As Mr. Page was strolling down Seventh Avenue, his face hit an umbrella decorated with a Campari logo that jutted in his way.

The midday trip through Mr. Page’s Chelsea neighborhood showed how dangerous things would be for blind pedestrians in New York, even if intersections were equipped with acoustic signals. However, there are fewer than 700 of these beeps across the city.

“When I hear an APS, I feel safe,” said Mr. Page.

On a four block loop from his building on the north side of 23rd Street, Mr. Page encountered a variety of hazards including scaffolding, police barricades, sandwich boards promoting business, workers having lunch on the sidewalk, and open stairs to the U. -Train .

He took them all to find them with his stick – “Jets green” for his favorite soccer team – before they harmed him. Stop-and-go traffic with cars, trucks, buses and bicycles was different.

When he got back to Sixth Avenue and crossed 22nd Street without the aid of an audible signal, Mr. Page paused to catch his breath and admitted how anxious it was. He said he was usually dependent on strangers, although he would rather not.

He said people often grab his arm, which means being helpful. But he has to explain that he would rather take hers so that they can guide him.

Just in time, a young woman grabbed Mr. Page’s elbows and offered to help him across 23rd Street on Seventh Avenue. He switched to her arm and chatted with her when they crossed, even though he had the help of an audible signal there.

Ms. Yolanda Yona, an interior designer and model from Zimbabwe, said she noticed the beeps from yellow devices on every corner. “I just like helping people, I think,” she said, adding that the pandemic didn’t put her off.

Even a few audible signals would be a godsend for Myrna Votta, who has had to drive the streets of Brooklyn Heights without her for more than 40 years. Ms. Votta, 81, used audible cues in Manhattan while teaching music on 59th Street at the headquarters of the nonprofit for the visually impaired known as Lighthouse.

She occasionally encounters an audible signal when taking her guide dog, a yellow Labrador Retriever, to the vets at Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side.

“They are really very helpful,” said Ms. Votta, especially at intersections where it would otherwise be easy to move yourself and your guide dog in the wrong direction. “You have to be aligned properly,” she explained. “If you look obliquely, the dog will lead you like this.”

Ms. Votta said that she and her husband, Pat, who is also blind but uses a stick, go out of their way to get to certain places in the neighborhood, including a favorite restaurant, as some intersections are just too dangerous. She hoped the court’s decision would force the city to install more audible signals in Brooklyn Heights and across the city soon.

“The whole thing for me is that we make the pitch equal,” said Ms. Votta. “If you can see, you have a much better chance of not being killed than I do.”

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