GIVE US A SIGN!
by Jeff Moyer

I remember in 1975 when I was hired as Coordinator of Blind Services at the newly founded Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California -- the first such independent living center. Due to the center's advocacy, I was asked to help evaluate the first curb cuts that the City had installed. My focus concerned the design's impact on pedestrians with visual disabilities. Thanks to that coalition of people with different disabilities, considering everyone's needs, the sloping access provisions were offset from the center of the sidewalk so as to maintain the curb -- that critical clue for pedestrians who are blind, that with the next step one would be in the street. The folks involved who use wheelchairs were understanding of the need and agreed to a design with which they would roll a few feet to the side of the direct line of sidewalk travel, thereby maintaining the curb. As we all know, that wise and collaborative design was not followed elsewhere with often disastrous results to many blind and low vision travelers. But this article is not about curb cuts or the need for detectable warnings, and that is not why I mention that moment in time.

Rather, I am reflecting on that memory because of the attending thought I had concerning my assumption about the likelihood of curb cuts ever being implemented on a broad scale. In 1975, I truly believed that public works departments outside of good old grass rootsy, inclusive Berkeley would not ever actually spend taxpayers' money on such an obviously expensive and narrow purpose. It just wouldn't happen. History has obviously proven me wrong.

Wrong because of the advocacy efforts of many effective individuals and organizations whose persistent and combined clout won the day. The danger that gradual slopes in the direct line of sidewalk travel present to us not withstanding, the ubiquitous and now ADA-mandated appearance of curb cuts has provided skateboarders, moms with strollers, and of course people using wheelchairs, crutches and walkers, with a convenience today taken for granted. Actually, that is the way of accommodations, they generally benefit a very broad population well beyond their initial target. But let's get back to the notion of our assumptions, advocacy, the cost of accommodations, and civil rights.

A few years later I was visiting The Smith Kettlewell Rehabilitation Engineering Center on Blindness in San Francisco, meeting with Larry Scadden, Bill Gerrey, and other blind researchers and engineers and checking out the latest engineering inventions those gifted folks had put together. They showed me the first talking signs that provided directional human voice sign beacons transmitted over infrared light, to room locations within the halls of the center. I silently considered the probability of this engineering access breakthrough ever being implemented on a large scale. Once again my doubting skeptic thought -- won't happen, too expensive, not enough of us. Think about that subtle, noxious and self-defeating attitude. Now consider how far the public has moved in its general acceptance of other access provisions. Nobody would think of saying, A concrete ramp? Curb cuts? An elevator? Electric doors? Re-built restrooms? We can't afford that stuff for a few people in wheelchairs! Rather, it is assumed that access to the built environment is a civil right and the cost of accommodation is simply the cost of accommodation. Unlike civil rights for minorities or women, providing civil rights for people with disabilities does have real costs.

So what about talking signs? It has been rigorously demonstrated through years of serious independent research that with remote infrared audible signage we can independently become oriented to unfamiliar places, cross streets safely while staying in the crosswalk, create mental maps that translate to a broader orientation and enjoy a type of freedom that the sighted community just takes for granted. Orientation to public places is a civil right, as surely as getting into the building or using the telephone. Yet, when you look around you, where are the talking signs? Only in San Francisco are talking signs an expected and delivered access provision. There are other places where there are installations, but we are not creating the groundswell of advocacy activity that is needed to move decision makers towards creating an accessible public environment for us. Why not?

Could it be that our assumptions and beliefs are limiting our advocacy? Let's look at the economics for a moment. An elevator costs, at a minimum, $25,000 per elevator, per floor. And that is the cost of building and installing the lift alone. Then there is the absolute requirement of regular servicing and certification to insure safe and reliable operation. Do the math on a multi-story, multi-elevator building. Or consider the costs of curb cuts, about $1,000 apiece. Intersections, parking lots, costs mount up. Ramps can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on their width and length, and materials used. Try another comparison. I would suggest that had the community of people who are deaf felt that they really didn't deserve access to the telephone system through relay services, they would never have been included as mandated state responsibilities under the ADA. But, thanks to the ADA, state telephone relay services have been established nationally and now, for the first time, people who use TDDs have equal and anytime access to the standard voice telephone system. Operators are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to provide bi-directional relay communication. A considerable and ongoing cost for certain.

Now we have to internalize that it is our turn to speak up about our civil rights to orientation and wayfinding information. Just as it is a civil right to have barrier-free access to public buildings, public transportation and sidewalks by folks with mobility impairments or access to the telephone system by individuals who are deaf, we require directional wayfinding signs to enjoy free and equal access to the built environment and transportation.

There are certainly costs involved with talking sign system installation and design, but they are one-time costs, with no service or maintenance required. If you estimate complete design and installation costs for the remote infrared audible signs at $3,000 per sign, one can quickly find no difficulty in the favorable comparison to elevators curb cuts, bus lifts, electric doors or the telephone relay service. But do we think that we are worthy of this expenditure? My guess is that we might just believe that there aren't enough of us to warrant this type of public outlay. The fact is that talking signs have the potential to benefit a far larger constituency than the 5% of the population whose limited or lack of visual acuity precludes their reading of standard signage.

Talking signs broadcast a digital code in addition to the human voice message we need for wayfinding. That code can prove to be enormously useful for translation, geographic identification for location-based services in airports, museums, and many other places. As we extend custom access to information via the wireless net through web phone and other systems not yet conceived of, these digital place markers will serve the entire population.

There is great movement afoot concerning talking signs worldwide. Consider the following:

So... as the old saying goes, we have the technology. What we now need is the advocacy. One might say that the 3 As of getting our needs met are: Awareness; Advocacy; and Accommodation. If we use our collective voice, we can stimulate the creation of accessible public places that meet our needs. Let's develop our collective awareness, advocate effectively and work to have the accommodations we need and deserve installed everywhere. Together they will really give us an accessible sign.

Jeff Moyer is an accessible design consultant and represents Talking Signs, Inc., in Ohio.

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