– Press Release White Cane Safety Day, October 15, 2008


Today the ability to travel safely and independently is a critical issue in our society. We all want to get to our destinations in the safest and quickest way possible. This is no different for persons who are blind or partially sighted.   New technical innovations such as speech enabled global position navigation systems using a mobile phone even permit navigating routes in foreign cities. Notwithstanding the benefits of such technological innovations, however, the white cane, acknowledged as a symbol representing blindness and mobility, is still the most used orientation aid around the world as well as the guide dog in some countries.

As we celebrate White Cane Day on October 15th, the World Bind Union, representing some 160 Million blind and partially sighted persons worldwide, wishes to point out some present day innovations that are in fact threatening the safe and independent travel of blind and partially sighted persons.

A primary tool used for orientation by blind and partially sighted persons is acoustic information. For example, in order to determine when the light at an intersection turns green they listen to determine the direction of travel of the vehicles, and know that when the parallel traffic moves forward, it is safe to cross.  And when crossing at an intersection that has no traffic lights, then they would listen for oncoming traffic.  The problem is that in the last few years, the development of the “silent vehicle” has made this acoustic information unavailable.  By the time a blind person (or anyone) would hear the much quieter motor of these silent vehicles, there would not be sufficient time to safely cross the street.  While clearly a less noisy environment is desirable we assert that introducing a minimum sound standard in these vehicles will not affect the environmental benefits of this new vehicle technology and indeed such modification is necessary to ensure the safe and independent travel of blind persons.

Another challenge relates to new urban design trends used in some cities.  A concept being promoted is that of “shared spaces” where vehicles and pedestrians will share the same space.  The theory is that drivers will slow down as they know they are sharing space with pedestrians and that drivers and pedestrians will communicate with each other via eye contact in order to ensure that they are both aware of the other’s presence.  This concept causes many barriers to blind and partially sighted persons – first and foremost because eye contact cannot be made.  Furthermore, the tactile and other environmental cues (such as sidewalk edges) which are normally used by blind and partially sighted persons for orientation are no longer there and they can inadvertently find themselves in the middle of the area intended for vehicles.

More work must be done to ensure that changes in vehicle and environmental design do indeed create a safer and more environmentally friendly situation for all citizens and that they don’t inadvertently construct barriers to independence.  While universal design features are clearly called for in the United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, attention must be given at every stage of conception and design of new products and features to ensure that the principles of this universal and inclusive design are maintained.  The World Blind Union calls upon governments, regulators, designers and manufacturers to establish and implement standards that will ensure universal access for all persons with disabilities.  We further call upon designers and manufacturers to consult with the World Blind Union, our members and partners in order to discuss possible implications of proposed design change so that issues which may be identified can be dealt with in the early stages.  In this way, our environment can become an aid to safe an independent travel for everyone including those who are blind or partially sighted.

For further information contact:
World Blind Union
Penny Hartin, Chief Executive Officer

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