Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign!

The Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) is a training center where blind students learn, among other things, how to travel in a city. In 1996, signs saying “blind crossing” began mysteriously popping up at intersections near the center’s instructional buildings and the apartments where the center students lived. Eventually, it was revealed that these signs had appeared at the request of a concerned citizen, Ms. Sonja Guenther, who had no connection with the CCB. She was anxious about the safety of the many blind students she saw crossing streets on their way to the center.

I grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac where a car passed my house about once every ten minutes. So, I didn’t find out until a few years ago that disability street signs are a thing. While “child at play” signs have been available since the 1940s, now there is a demand for signs saying things like “deaf child,” “blind child area,” or “autistic child.” Parents either request the signs from their city or town, or they make their own. And as revealed by what happened at CCB, signs can be requested for the benefit of adults, too.

Before I explain why I’m not a fan of these signs, I want to acknowledge the very real concern that motivates their use. Traffic is dangerous. I can’t begin to imagine the fear that parents must experience on the idea of their child being struck by a car. Especially if the child has shown risky behavior, such as running out into the street, that may or may not be influenced by a disability. Ultimately, the sign is one of many tools available to a disabled person and their family. I do hope anyone considering these signs will give some thought to the arguments below, and make an informed decision, ideally with the involvement of the disabled person connected to the sign.

First, disability signs reinforce stereotypes. They effectively shout to passersby: “Disabled person here, they’re different, treat them with care.” They imply that the disabled pedestrian cannot look out for their own best interest. People with sensory impairments do miss some traffic-related information. However, a blind or deaf pedestrian is not like a nondisabled pedestrian with a blindfold or earplugs on. Rather, we substitute the missing information with different, equally valid information. I’m not convinced that blind people, as a rule, are at greater risk of collision with a car. The reason I say that is because I have a lot of experience walking with both blind and sighted people. Almost all of the risky pedestrian choices I have witnessed, such as crossing in the middle of a block or against the light, were choices made by sighted people.

But, disability signs don’t just reinforce stereotypes. They also rely on stereotypes in order to have any chance of efficacy. If members of the public truly understood that disabled people are a cross-section of society, and that not all people with particular disabilities need to be treated with care, they would not change their behavior in response to disability signs. These signs only work if drivers think that disabled people need special care. So, users of the signs are capitalizing on disability stereotypes to keep disabled people safe.

Which leads me to my next point: These signs don’t advise drivers on how, exactly, to accommodate a particular disability. It’s assumed that drivers will know what to do upon learning that a blind, deaf, or autistic person *might* be in the area. We know that most nondisabled people have no real idea how to help us. The signs don’t give enough information to truly educate drivers.

For example, what the heck is a “blind crossing?” Is it an intersection where one corner is hidden from view? Is it a tangle between window blinds? Is it a crossing through a dark tunnel?

I’m poking a little fun, but disability stereotypes are no laughing matter. The idea that disabled people are less safe is the reason why families of disabled parents are still torn apart, why disabled people are still routinely denied jobs, why some disabled people end up in institutions against their will. Using signs to advertise these stereotypes is reinforcing discrimination. The signs also do nothing to educate drivers on how a disabled person might interact differently with traffic.

Besides strengthening stereotypes, disability signs can stigmatize the very individuals they are meant to protect. In an article on the Hands and Voices website, a deaf woman was interviewed on the matter. “She hated the sign while she was growing up. It was more than embarrassing; it was like a scarlet letter. She was mortified to have people stop by and see this label posted outside her house.”

But, parents have argued to me, this is about safety. Safety outweighs stigma concerns. After all, disabled people use plenty of devices or techniques that make us stand out, yet they have obvious benefits that outweigh the downside of being labeled as disabled. And, I agree that if we are truly considering a life-or-death danger, preservation of life should trump all. So, let’s look at the potential benefit of these signs.

There is very little peer-reviewed research on how signs impact driver behavior. However, organizations like the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) discourage their use. The latest manual of the FHWA advises that “warning signs should be kept to a minimum as the unnecessary use of warning signs tends to breed disrespect for all signs.” A common concern is that when signs frequently appear in the absence of an actual child, disabled person, etc. drivers will learn to disregard them. They can breed a false sense of security, as evidenced by the fact that the types of drivers who tend to speed through residential areas also tend to be the types who will ignore signs.

It was for all these reasons that on May 18, 1996, nearly 70 members of the National Federation of the Blind of Denver signed a petition asking for swift removal of the “blind crossing” signs. Fortunately, the city traffic engineers listened to the local blind community, and the signs were removed. But, there was a backlash from Ms. Guenther, the concerned citizen who had demanded placement of the signs. In a lengthy letter to the city traffic engineer, she insisted that the motivation for the signs was not out of pity, but out of “respect that I have gained for [the blind] and a desire to further facilitate their efforts to merge into society.” She then rambled about various blind people she knew-a textbook instance of moral credentialing. Then she detailed the various negative consequences that could arise if a blind pedestrian was hit by a car. She even said that “blind associations” could be held liable if someone was hurt at an intersection after the signs had been removed at their request.

Herein lies my biggest issue with disability signs. They are almost always placed “about us, without us.” Ms. Guenther knew exactly where the CCB was located. She could have easily paid a visit to the center to express her safety concerns to the staff and offer to help find solutions. Frankly, it would have probably taken her less time to do that than to go on a letter-writing and calling campaign with the city. But, she didn’t say a word about her concerns to the CCB. And, once the CCB and the blind of Denver had the signs removed, she had the nerve to complain-not to the blind citizens themselves but to the city traffic engineer.

Similarly, “disabled child” signs are often placed by parents or neighbors without the participation of the child. Sometimes they are meant to benefit a child who can’t yet express an opinion. In those cases, I hope that parents will consider the opinions of adults and older children with similar disabilities before making a decision. Further, disability signs are absolutely not a panacea and they cannot substitute for other safety practices. Drivers need to be educated about how people with various disabilities might interact differently with traffic, and disabled children need to grow up learning both general and disability-specific traffic awareness skills. Many disabled adults are happy to share our insights on ways to make the roads safer and more inclusive for all.

Note: I am having technical issues with links today. Email me if you want to see the source for anything cited in this post. Arielle@disabilitywisdom.com

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