In 1989 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was being formulated, many people were involved. The main architect of the law’s drafting was Senator Tom Harken of Iowa, one of the Senate’s great lions of disability rights. Senator Harken’s brother was deaf, and he had a great sensitivity to those concerns. Mary Jane Owen, who was blind, was the head of the National Catholic Office on disability, although her credentials were deep and broad. Since coming to Washington D.C. in 1979, she had also served in leadership positions for the peace corps and the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Mary Jane had been a professor of research at San Francisco State University and one of the leaders of the 504 Demonstration the civil disobedience action which led to the signing of the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the foundation upon which the ADA was built. Mary Jane knew her stuff. She noted with alarm that the needs of people with visual disabilities were not being considered in the ADA’s draft language. Ever the organizer, Mary Jane put a committee together of the heads of the many blindness organizations in Washington D.C., in order to provide Senator Harken’s office with language that would address these unmet needs in the upcoming law.
Robert “Bobby” Silverstein, Harken’s lead staffer on the ADA, approached Mary Jane. Bobby said that the Senator was not addressing blindness as part of the ADA.
His concerns were that including blindness would drive up the cost of required modifications to the public accommodations addressed by the ADA and that it would upset the political apple cart that was already strained as it addressed the needs of those who use wheelchairs and individuals who are deaf. Bobby urged Mary Jane to be patient\, and he re-assured her, on behalf of Senator Harken, that concerns relating to visual disability would be addressed when the ADA would be re-authorized in years to come. Mary Jane reported back to her committee and they “stood down” and waited. Inexpensive requirements such as plastic room signs with large print tactile symbols and Braille were included, but not the real needed accommodations for orientation and wayfinding such as accessible pedestrian crosswalks and accessible signage throughout public transit systems. Thus, it is that every intersection in the United States is now wheelchair accessible, but intersections modified with auditory pedestrian signals are few and far between, and a matter of local option. Further there is no standard, so competing systems present different sounds within different cities.
The ADA Restoration Act of 2008 did not require any accommodations for visually disabled pedestrians as hoped for. The specifics of all required accommodations are codified in the ADAAG, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. It details such things as the required size of accessible bathroom stalls, the maximum pull weight allowed for doors to public restrooms, placement of accessible signage and the height of bathroom counters for wheelchair access. The needs of pedestrians who are severely visually disabled are not addressed. Information concerning where things are in the built environment and what they are, is required by everyone. Seeking a public restroom or safely crossing a street requires precise location information. I am certified, at the highest level, as a member of the ADA implementation network. Between 1991 and 1992 I took 80 hours of classes through the Department of Justice taught by Berkley’s Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund. Nothing in the ADAAG addressed orientation and wayfinding access. Accessible room signs are an incomplete solution. Tactile and Braille restroom signs serve no purpose if you do not know where to feel for them. While on a break, during the ADA training’, I spoke to the late Ron Maice, the brilliant accessible design specialist who wrote much of the ADAAG as it concerns wheelchair access. Ron lived with quadriplegia. I asked him how best to get orientation and wayfinding access into the ADAAG. He said to follow procedure through the U.S. Access Board. I knew Ron well. In 1986 I had invited Ron to participate in a travelling lecture series on accessibility that I was developing under invitation by the United States Information Agency. It was to travel to the USSR as part of a larger cultural education exchange program. I also invited Dr. Larry Scadden, Director of Smith-Kettlewell Rehabilitation Engineering Center on blindness to be part of the delegation to travel to the USSR. Dr. Scadden is blind.
In 1979 engineers at Larry’s federally funded Smith-Kettlewell’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research and Training Center, invented a simple, powerful, orientation and way-finding system using infrared light. The system called RIAS, Remote Infrared Audible Signage, transmits repeating short, human voice messages over infrared light, to be spoken by receivers held by users. The receivers have on-board small speakers and ear bud jacks. Infrared light is silent and invisible and hence there is no noise pollution. The one-button-receiver speaks what a location is, and exactly where it is, meeting this unmet access need. Hence, a blind user in a large airport can scan with his receiver and decern where the men’s restroom, the women’s restroom, the water fountain, and specific gates are located.
In 1980, shortly after its invention, I was visiting the Smith-Kettlewell research labs and experienced the system firsthand. Every door in the center was identified through its talking sign. When I needed to use the men’s room, I was given a receiver and independently, for the first time in my life, struck out to locate the head. The elegant system took no training since it only involved holding down one button on a remote sized receiver and scanning like one would use a flashlight, looking for signs. When I was within range, my receiver talked and told me what the name of the room was and exactly where the doorhandle was, since it was directly below the sign. The more precisely one pointed at the sign, the louder and clearer the signal was, so one could easily navigate unfamiliar places. The technology had been developed by the combined efforts of Bill Gerrey, a brilliant engineer who was blind, and Bill Loughborough, an equally brilliant engineer who was sighted. Later, Smith-Kettlewell also employed another Bill, the scientist Dr. Bill Crandall, who oversaw several research projects concerning the efficacy of RIAS technology and was successful in establishing the Smith-Kettlewell RIAS frequency as an international standard, ensuring that one’s receiver would work anywhere in the world. Extensive RIAS research demonstrated that blind people could safely cross complex intersections with ease and stay within the crosswalk. The RIAS transmitter atop the changing pedestrian “Walk”/ “Don’t Walk”-sign gives the blind user the signs’ status and its precise location.
In San Francisco, the technology spread due to its popularity with blind users and the advocacy of Smith-Kettlewell and the mayor’s office. Richard Skaff, Deputy Director of the San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office on Disability recognized the value of RIAS and was a strong advocate for its implementation there. Over 1,000 signs were installed. Not only were numerous intersections in San Francisco signed with RIAS transmitters, but also was the Civic Auditorium, the City Hall, the public library, and the Caltrans train stations. Research demonstrated that blind users who had learned the layout of the train station’s interior, could generalize this information for exterior building orientation. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that all public buildings must have a RIAS transmitter identifying the entrance of the building. One of San Francisco’s complex BART stations was also signed during the research. I travelled to San Francisco frequently for professional purposes. I borrowed a RIAS receiver. I easily and independently travelled through the Caltrans station to perform at the Civic Center and surveyed numerous San Francisco RIAS installations. It was such a joy to have this form of access, although it was only in islands.
In 1993 I was consulting on access provisions for a gallery under development for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I wanted orientation and wayfinding to be included, so I contacted Smith-Kettlewell and learned that RIAS was then under the control of a company recently established to manufacture and market the technology called Talking Signs Inc. I contacted Ward Bond, president of the new company, and soon I was representing them in Ohio. Since RIAS was not required by the ADAAG, we focused on airport access. A blind traveler would be given a receiver at the ticket counter, she would independently navigate the airport, and return the receiver to the gate agent before she got on the plane.
In 2001, we had come remarkably close to having RIAS established as the standard for airport access for those who cannot see or read standard signs. In the budget year of 2002, we had projects planned for O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, LAX, and Atlanta. LaGuardia was in our sights.
The day before 9/11, Ward met with the airport commission of the New York Port Authority on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center. At the same time, on the first floor a demonstration of RIAS technology had been set up by Helen Keller International to provide an easily accessible international demonstration of the system’s power. That day, the New York Port Authority agreed to install RIAS transmitters throughout LaGuardia Airport and two large, bused terminals. The president of the port authority’s airport commission was due in Washington D.C. to meet with secretary of transportation, Norman Manetta, to answer the question he had posed concerning how to make airports accessible for people who are blind. He was going to tell him; the answer was Talking Signs. However, the following day, the 9/11, disaster struck. Among the thousands of those killed when the World Trade Center fell, thirteen of the fifteen engineers who had met with Ward, perished. Secretary Manetta and the president of the airport commission watched the towers fall and with them, blind access was instantly forgotten as safety became every airport’s top priority. Airports changed forever and all airport projects were cancelled. On 9/11, Ward and I spoke on the phone just after he had reserved the last available rental car. He left New York City and crossed the bridge heading home to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just before they closed New York’s bridges.
We mourned and moved on.
My role within Talking Signs Inc. expanded and by 2004 I was the Vice President of Marketing, engaged at a national level, seeking the expansion of RIAS technology through federal legislation. Ward and I realized that the Highway Bill might be a way to gain funding for a national demonstration project. For nine months one week a month we visited the necessary congressional offices and collected signatures on letters at the conventions of national blindness organizations. I realized that we were addressing the needs of people with visual disabilities and also the needs of those with print-reading disabilities who cannot read standard signs. The Highway Bill, or the Infrastructure Bill, is federal legislation periodically re-authorized, which provides federal funding for roads and bridges and much more, even including pedestrian infrastructure.
In 2006, having eight hundred letters of support for our amendment from end users with visual disabilities, we were successful in gaining the amendment I wrote to the Highway Bill, which provided two million dollars for the study of Talking Signs in a regional transit system. It was a joyful demonstration of the power of the American democratic system that two guys with proven technology could get an amendment into the Highway Bill to help people with visual disabilities not covered by the ADA. The amendment, RIAS MAP (Model Accessibility Project), resulted in Seattle’s public transit agency installing the technology throughout six complex transit stations, which included AMTRAK, Light Rail, and buses. However, the recipients of that grant produced an incomplete demonstration since actual buses, trains, and pedestrian crosswalks were not signed as I had planned.
Recognizing our mistake, we approached the re-authorization of the Highway Bill in 2010 with an amendment that specified its build-out throughout Washington D.C. and with adequate funding to ensure that all aspects of the pedestrian experience, navigating a city using public transportation, were covered. Our attention was on pedestrian access writ large. We were ready to scale and had manufacturing arrangements with different companies that built signs for: intersections, buildings, digital changing displays, buses and trains, and even personal name signs. It was an international group of manufacturers from Japan, Italy, and the United States.
Again, Ward and I returned to Washington D.C. for one week a month, from September 2009 through June 2010, to visit every congressional office important to the legislation. By the end of that period, building on our earlier success in Seattle, and with the ground’s well of consumer support, we had a high priority amendment for twenty-five million dollars to put RIAS technology throughout D.C.: at one hundred intersections, on all buses and trains, and throughout every regional transit station. Washington D.C. was to be made the first accessible city for the forty-six million Americans who either cannot see or cannot read standard print signs. Our amendment was sponsored by Congress Woman Eleanor Holmes-Norton with both, democratic and republican co-sponsors as we had had for our earlier amendment. We also had support from President Obama’s White House, senators from both parties, blindness consumer organizations and disability organizations representing individuals who cannot read signs.
In 2010 we were on the world stage; for example, Japan had installed transmitters at all train stations throughout the country. Yet in the U.S., while marketing the technology across the country, at many times we had been told “Since your technology is not required by the ADAAG, we will not install it.” The ADA was a law that excluded RIAS technology because it was not included in the ADAAG.
We were using the Highway Bill as a back door into our civil rights. The amendment I had written, NEWMAP (National Empowerment for Wayfinding Model Accessibility Project), the Washington D.C. demonstration project would have provided the needed comprehensive demonstration which would have moved the access board to include RIAS in the ADAAG.
However, the majority leader of the Senate vowed not to allow any of President Obama’s legislative agenda to pass. The 2010 Highway Bill was an immediate casualty. A decade of our hard and successful work fell to dust. Without our dream of a regional RIAS buildout, which would have insured RIAS’s inclusion in the ADAAG, and with no other business because of its exclusion, Talking Signs Inc. died in 2011. It is sad that RIAS, a technology with such potential, went up in smoke. We came so close to gaining our civil rights for orientation to public places and public transportation through accessible signage. My battle cry had been “Orientation to public places and public transportation is a civil right.” Although our civil rights are unrealized, this is still true.