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Blind and visually impaired pedestrians: Accessible and Safe Street crossings

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Safely crossing the street might seem like a simple task but there are a lot of factors that come into play before we make a decision; Identifying oncoming traffic, knowing the status of the pedestrian signal, listening to oncoming traffic. For those who are blind and or have low vision, listening to the flow of traffic is one of the most important factors in making that decision, especially if no accessible pedestrian signal is installed.

How do blind people get around?

Blind and visually impaired people use a combination of skills, techniques, and assistive technology to move around safely and independently. This all starts with orientation and mobility training. This training helps blind and low vision people to learn to understand their environment, learn how to move around independently and understand traffic patterns. These techniques are often accompanied by a white cane or a guide dog.

  1. White canes: The long white cane with a red tip is used to detect obstacles in the path of blind and visually impaired people, to detect changes in surfaces and to indicate changes in elevation. The person swipes from left to right to scan the surroundings.

  2. Guide dogs: Trained guide dogs help visually impaired people to navigate obstacles, indicate changes in elevation, help cross an intersection and help their handler avoid as much danger as they know how to. Fun fact about guide dogs: did you know that there are faster and slower guide dogs?

What are the main challenges for blind pedestrians?

Navigating through an intersection can pose a significant challenge for those who are blind or visually impaired. Traditionally, they are taught to use the sound of parallel traffic and other auditory cues to gauge when it's safe to cross. However, external noise sources, like overhead trains akin to those in Chicago, can interfere with these auditory clues.

Moreover, certain traffic systems enable pedestrians to begin crossing prior to vehicular traffic, enhancing safety for sighted individuals but complicating matters for those with visual impairments. They've learned to cross in sync with the flow of vehicular traffic, and this advance start for pedestrians can introduce confusion. In addition, there are exclusive pedestrian phase signals that halt all vehicular traffic to allow pedestrian movement, making it especially difficult for the blind and visually impaired to ascertain safe crossing conditions.

How do blind pedestrians cross signalized intersections?

Blind and visually impaired people are taught several techniques by experienced orientation and mobility trainers to safely cross a signalized intersection. Here are some steps taken to safely cross the intersection.

  1. Locating the curb: A cane user uses the tip of the cane and sometimes their feet to locate the curb of the intersection to line up correctly. Guide dog users know where the intersection starts based on the cues from their guide dog.

  2. Street recognition: The visually impaired person determines which intersections he is at, this can be based on their mental map, certain auditory cues or a GPS application.

  3. Intersection assessment: The visually impaired pedestrian analyses the environment by listening to the flow of traffic for a few cycles or by using their mental map.

  4. Crossing the intersection: The visually impaired pedestrian makes a decision based on their hearing if it is safe to cross or not. Once they start crossing they stay aligned by the help of their guide dog or their cane. However, veering off into traffic is a real issue that can have dangerous consequences.

Accessible pedestrian signals

At some intersections you can find an accessible pedestrian signal, or APS in short. These devices inform the user of the status of the pedestrian signal through sounds and vibrations. Did you know that equipping a four-way intersection with these audible devices costs on average $50,000? Audible devices are not installed at every intersection and are cumbersome to maintain.

The OKO app for the blind

The OKO App is a practical tool that is co-developed with the blind and visually impaired community. It uses the back camera of a smartphone to bring back the status of the pedestrian signal. Here's how it can help:

  • The app uses sounds, vibrations, and visual overlays to convey the status of pedestrian signals, aiming to be inclusive and accessible for various user needs.

  • It's designed to work at any intersection with a pedestrian signal, irrespective of the local infrastructure.

  • The software runs locally on the user's phone, no WiFi or cellular connection required.

The OKO App provides feedback based on your orientation to the pedestrian signal. This makes it very easy to find or orient yourself towards a pedestrian signal. The moment you receive feedback you know you are oriented correctly to start heading in the right direction. Similarly if you start veering off intro traffic the OKO app will no longer visually see the pedestrian signal and the feedback will stop. The sudden loss of feedback means you’re veering off into traffic. You should use OKO to find the light again to realign and get across in a straight way.

download button for the OKO app

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