A lesson in traveling in the dark

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2009 - 10:05 AM

Minnesotans who are deaf, blind or both are helping officials see the barriers that transportation poses for them.

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Deaf blind interpreter Claire Alexander communicated with Jose Herrera by signing in his hand as they talked about heading to the bus stop that he uses.

Photo: Harkness, Kyndell, Star Tribune

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Imagine trying to cross the street if you couldn't see or hear.

Minnesotans who are blind, deaf or both don't have to imagine. They've long been tired of the barriers that complicate their daily movements. Now, thanks to increasing activism and improved technologies, they have the attention of the people who could make it easier for them get around.

"I'm a specialist in deaf-blindness, and all of my clients struggle to travel around the Twin Cities," said Joe Cioffi, an education specialist who works with people who have lost both their hearing and vision. "If they get a job, to be able to get back and forth is just critical to be able to have a life."

Many Minnesota roads and intersections lack features that help disabled citizens travel. As the deaf and blind increasingly convey their concerns -- and connect with one another -- public officials are hustling to get caught up. They are also asking disabled citizens to help decide which projects -- pedestrian bridges? vibrating crosswalk signals? -- should get done with scarce dollars.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the state estimates that 10 percent of Minnesotans have significant hearing loss, and nationally, the federal government says 17 percent of people over 40 have eye disease. The state's aging population will only add to the numbers.

To begin to understand the issue, take a short walk with Jose Herrera.

There's a bus stop just across from Herrera's house, but even with his guide dog, he can't get there. He would have to trust that traffic he can't hear and can barely see would stop for him.

When he walks to a transit center a half-mile away, manhole covers and uneven concrete jut up along the sidewalk. Branches poke through chain-link fences. A stray cable dangles from a utility pole -- and that's before he gets to a busy intersection where he can't make out the traffic signals or listen for approaching cars.

Herrera, 55, lives in Brooklyn Center and works at a hotel in Brooklyn Park. He gets around with help from his wife, Wendy, their dog, Barb, and the kindness of bus drivers and strangers. A button on one of his caps announces that he's deaf-blind and asks for assistance.

Herrera was born deaf and has been gradually going blind because of retinitis pigmentosa. He can't see in the middle of his field of vision, but for now he can tell bright from dark.

He has an easier time staying within crosswalks marked with big white rectangles instead of two lines along the edge, but some rectangles on his route have been worn away by traffic, time and snowplows.

He can't make out the walk/don't walk signals at all, but if he enlarges the text on his computer so that each letter is about a half-inch tall, he can read e-mails.

The Internet is one of the newer ways that people with severe hearing and vision loss are able to find each other and share information.

Technology has "really enhanced our ability to communicate with each other," said Ken Rogers, an advocate who lost his vision to a rare retinal disease about 15 years ago. Software can read e-mails and websites aloud, while Braille computers allow users who can't see or hear to send and receive messages.

Rogers was part of a group that made an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint against MnDOT and several other government agencies in 2007 over crosswalk signals, and he has been watching the changes with interest. "Because of that initial federal complaint that was filed, all of this has transpired."

Neither seen nor heard

Now transportation officials are getting their own lessons in overcoming barriers.

At a first-ever workshop with deaf-blind people earlier this year, speakers had to identify themselves every time they spoke, and they had to stay put so they wouldn't block the interpreters.

Tactile interpreters paired up with deaf-blind people and used their fingers to convey what was being said, while sign-language interpreters in the front of the room would sign for those who were deaf but could see well enough. Some interpreters cost $45 an hour.

Wendy Williams, who is blind and hears with cochlear implants, told transportation officials about falling into a manhole in Faribault. Utility workers had simply put up a few traffic cones, which weren't enough to let her guide dog know to make a detour. Cathy Erickson noted that the threat posed by bicyclists on sidewalks when calling out "on your left" or ringing a bell is of no use to those who can't hear.

On a snowy morning this past week, a half-dozen disabled citizens visited roundabouts in Cottage Grove and Richfield with employees of MnDOT, who organized the outing and provided bright safety vests for everyone to wear.

"For a deaf-blind person, this would be an impossible crosswalk to cross for me," Kimberly Williams said through an interpreter while cars flowed through the roundabout at 66th Street and 17th Avenue in Richfield. She would prefer some sort of signal, maybe one that would only turn red when a button was pushed, to ensure that traffic would stop.

Where to spend money

A number of crosswalk devices can help pedestrians who are blind or both blind and deaf. There are audio signals that beep or speak and push-buttons that vibrate a certain way when it's safe to cross. MnDOT now has a policy of installing such signals when it rebuilds or replaces pedestrian signals that it operates.

The state's attention followed a pair of sweeping complaints that Minnesota disability groups filed this spring with the Justice Department, which handed them over to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for investigation.

The initial response was disappointing, said Christopher Bell, the lawyer who filed the complaints. In late July, the St. Paul office of the FHWA told Bell it needed more information, such as exact locations along Hwy. 5 where the grade of curb ramps isn't in compliance.

Bell fired back: "Do you think we have the capacity to go out and measure all of the curb ramps, determine the slope of the sidewalk with levels we cannot see, etc.?"

Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the FHWA, said the agency preferred not to comment on active complaints but said that in general, complainants needed only to provide the locations.

For its part, MnDOT has announced that it would spend $4.5 million on ADA-related projects this year, including $2 million in stimulus funds, plus $2 million a year in each of the next four years.

Those amounts are a drop in the bucket, said Bell. Pennsylvania, for example, directed more than $28 million in stimulus money to disability improvements.

Plan comes 15 years late

The complaints also noted that states were required to file a "transition plan" for improving transportation access in 1995. Most states have complied.

"There's no excuse for not having it done earlier," said Nick Thompson, a MnDOT engineer who has been in charge of the agency's accessibility project since earlier this year. A draft of MnDOT's plan should be ready for public comment in December.

Even with the increased attention, improvements will not be sweeping because of funding and the division of responsibilities among cities, counties and the state.

Eric Drager is traffic operations engineer for Hennepin County, which is responsible for the major streets near Jose Herrera's house. The cost for putting accessible signals at one crossing of a four-way intersection is about $3,000, he said. To do all four crossings runs about $8,000 to $10,000 dollars.

With only a few requests a year, the county has been able to find money in the regular budget, Drager said. If the number were to rise, additional signals might have to wait for more funding.

Rogers is among those eager to see more improvements around the metro area. He's had little trouble navigating the bus system, but one day not long ago, he found himself at a curb ramp that pointed diagonally into the middle of a St. Paul intersection, instead of lining up with either crosswalk. His service dog saved him from being hit by the very bus he was trying to catch.

Minnesota, he said, is "pretty advanced in some ways, and so in the dark ages in other ways."

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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