A tragic pedestrian fatality recently prompted many messages on listservs and a Forum article ("Who Will Speak for Brandy Prince?," July-August 2005). The victim was a woman who was walking in the street when struck. She was traveling legally with a white cane.
Numerous pedestrians with visual impairments must move along routes every day where there is insufficient protection from moving vehicles. My own experiences may offer encouragement to others who need safer routes of pedestrian travel.
My weekend home is about four miles from the nearest public transportation. Circumstances require that I make that trip on foot on many occasions. About half the distance is along a two-lane county arterial highway.
My highest priority was to get paved shoulders added, but for a long time I got little more than lip service in my personal conversations and telephone calls to the county's Department of Public Works officials. I had initially gained access to them after attaining an appointment to the federally mandated County Transportation Advisory Committee. My first victory actually came on the town road linking my village destination to the county highway. Attending meetings of the town board regularly, and serving in several volunteer capacities for the town, I got to know the Public Works commissioner well enough that he approached me at one meeting with a most heartening offer. He was about to repave that stretch of road and indicated he could add a bit to the total width, enough to create a pedestrian lane on one side. He apologetically asked if it would be acceptable if the lane was narrower than the "best practices" standard for such lanes, of four feet. The topography limited his options. I immediately and gratefully endorsed his design. Soon thereafter, my treks to the bus stop were much safer along that part of my journey.
Without warning some months later, suddenly there were newly paved shoulders on the county highway too. On both sides, but variable in width and generally narrow. The county applied a white lane separation stripe on its near edge. I got no notice of this improvement but I suspected that the town's example had helped move the county officials forward.
About the same time I utilized my position as vice chair of the town shade tree commission to locate sugar maple trees along the south side of one stretch of the highway. I no longer have sufficient sight in full daylight to walk in daytime, but in those days I could, and I looked forward to the summer shade as I strolled by a mammoth cornfield. Nowadays I admire those flourishing trees in the friendliness of twilight, or in the light of the silvery moon.
My trips from home begin on a half-mile of privately owned dirt roads. I have taken care to remain an active member of our homeowners' association, and influence decisions every way I can to assure these dirt roads are maintained in a manner that keeps them as accessible as possible for me. Between the dirt roads and the county highway is a stretch of tranquil town road. But for it, too, I found a way to have my say. On behalf of the homeowners' association, I arranged for a radar speed check by the town police.
At the far end of my trips to the bus stop is a village with sidewalks. I have had several conversations with village officials about improving their quality, which is currently best suited for the proverbial mountain goat, and would be virtually impassable for a person using a wheelchair. A note of irony was introduced when each side street crossing received beautiful new curb ramps! I had better luck with the village when I proposed an accessible pedestrian signal at a central intersection. Within weeks I was invited to a meeting between the village and state Department of Transportation representatives who have jurisdiction because Main Street is State Route 94. Soon there was a front-page photo in the local newspaper displaying the new devices, me, and of course, the local elected official who led the governmental effort.
In a presentation at a program session at the 2005 American Council of the Blind convention, I emphasized two aspects of effective advocacy -- persistence and personalization. The first concept is obvious. By "personalization" I mean developing a personal relationship with the governmental people who make the decisions which can give us pedestrians safer, better paths of travel. As I have observed elsewhere too, my own experiences have tended to be more effective when I am speaking as one blind pedestrian with a need, rather than as a representative of an entire organization with a more general agenda. I would include that notion, too, in my definition of "personalization."
For what it's worth, I would add that it is more likely to be an administrative official, rather than an elected official, who will act on a specific pedestrian need. In my village, there is a parliamentary style of government; the departments are headed up by the elected members of the village board. So it is the same people to deal with. But on the town and county levels, I avoided any involvement with my elected representatives and dealt with the bureaucrats. Having been one myself for several decades, I know that they get more requests than they can attend to promptly. Hence the first principle of persistence. That is the way to move your need up higher on his to-do list. The choice to invest my advocacy energy in contacts with the executive branch of government, rather than the legislative, has held true on the state level also, as well as in New York City. One of my "Big Apple" adventures was referenced in "The Braille Forum" ("On the Avenue, Sixth Avenue," September-October 2004).
I am reminded also of a related experience pertaining to public transportation needs. As a member of my town's Comprehensive Plan Board, I wrote the section of the proposed master plan for our community that advocated for the introduction of public transportation. When the board's finished draft was submitted to the town board for adoption, they referred it first to the town's planning board. The document subsequently came back to the town board with slight editing. Fortunately, I spotted an added phrase at the start of the public transit section -- "While not needed yet ..."! My protest at the town board's adoption proceedings killed that mischievous qualifier.
So we must talk the talk more in order to walk the walk more safely. The answer to Allen J. Casey's question, "Who Speaks for Brandy Prince?" -- We all must.
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