This Mattered to Me
"Impact of Curb Ramps on the Safety of Persons Who Are Blind," by Billie Louise Bentzen and Janet M. Barlow, published in the July-August 1995 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Volume 89, Number 4, pp. 319-328.
Print edition page number(s) 437-439
The series editor of "This Mattered to Me" is Stuart H. Wittenstein, Ed.D., superintendent of the California School for the Blind.
This opportunity to contribute to "This Matters to Me" made me stop and reflect on--and appreciate--how publications such as the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) have affected me and my professional life. The article I selected to highlight in this essay, "Impact of Curb Ramps on the Safety of Persons Who are Blind," by Billie Louise "Beezy" Bentzen and Janet Barlow, published results of research that was specifically designed to answer a controversial question. Why should that article still matter, years after the question was answered and we, as a field, have moved on? Because this article represents the first time I remember reading orientation and mobility (O&M) research that questioned what we all "know" to be "true," and because the research in the article helped settle a passionate argument. This article matters even more because it was designed to do more than answer a specific question, it also provided valuable information that changed how I teach. Above all, it inspired me to consider the importance of using "real-life" research to answer "real-life" questions.
To convey the significance of this article, a bit of background information is needed. In 1991, there was a heated debate among members of the field of visual impairment and blindness about detectable warnings at curb ramps. One side argued that installing them was humiliating, because such ramps implied that blind people are not capable of detecting curbs when, in fact, "as everyone knows," blind people can be safe travelers as long as they have received proper O&M training. The other side argued that, "as everyone knows," even with the best training, blind travelers have problems recognizing where the edges of streets are when there are ramps. The debate was impassioned, with each side citing the "obvious."
Questioning assumptions with research that uses real-life settings
While the argument over curb ramps raged, and the dignity and safety of blind people hung in the balance, Beezy Bentzen and Janet Barlow began to design research to address this issue. The idea of using research to study what we all assumed to be true, to settle arguments with facts instead of anecdotes and advocacy, was a revelation to me. Whenever I thought of research, I imagined labs and controls, bells, buzzers, and stopwatches, but Dr. Bentzen and Ms. Barlow thought of real life--real people doing real things, with a minimum of manipulation from researchers. For example, because they were only interested in what happens when blind people walk along the curb ramp, they considered having the subjects guided toward the street to be sure they walked along the ramp. But they realized that this would remove some of the real-life variables, because a lot of information and cues individuals use to find the edge of the street can be detected long before they reach the curb ramp. The authors were wise to realize that the subjects needed to be allowed to engage in whatever approach they would normally take as they draw near to a street corner.
Since this article was published, I have read other research that questions "the truth," such as Duane Geruschat and Shirin Hassan's groundbreaking study on whether drivers stop to allow people with white canes to cross roads as "everyone knows" they do (Geruschat & Hassan, 2005). Dr. Bentzen and Ms. Barlow went on to question "the truth" that blind people can cross modern signalized intersections without Accessible Pedestrian Signals (see, for example, Bentzen, Barlow, & Bond, 2005). Recently, I participated in research that considered "the truth" that it is safe to cross streets that have no traffic control whenever it is quiet (Wall Emerson & Sauerburger, 2008).
Searching beyond the original question
The article highlighted here and the other valuable research that followed helped me appreciate that when research exceeds the minimum amount of study that is needed to answer a question, it can yield valuable information that can change the world. After the subjects in the article highlighted here found the edge of the street, they were asked what cues they used. What a bonanza of information that gave the O&M community! Although that information was not included in their JVIB article, it was made available from the authors, and I started teaching my clients to recognize and use the cues the participants described.
Continuing relevance of vigorous study
Why should such research matter to us today? One example of the relevancy of the research conducted in this article is the issue of whether people with visual impairments can detect quiet cars, which is causing great alarm today, and with good reason. "Everyone knows" that quiet cars cause problems for blind people, and such cars are being studied in laboratories to find out how loud the cars must be to be detected and what kind of sound to use to ensure the safety of people with visual impairments. Laboratory research is useful, but we in the field of O&M need to take a lesson from Dr. Bentzen and Ms. Barlow. We need to conduct research that questions "the truth" about quiet cars and studies what are the real problems that these cars can cause in real life, examines what solutions can really work, and whether those solutions will cause other real-life problems when implemented.
Fortunately, researchers at Western Michigan University are currently studying quiet cars at real intersections with real blind people. So thank you, Beezy and Janet, for the insight and wisdom of your research--the legacy of your article lives on!
On the web
The article relating to this commentary is available free to subscribers at JVIB Online: <www.afb.org/afbpress/pubjvib.asp?DocID=jvib030709>. Nonsubscribers may purchase a copy of the article from the JVIB Classics area of AFB's ePublications web site: <www.afb.org/ePublications/JVIBClassics>.
Bentzen, B. L., Barlow, J. M., & Bond, T. (2005). Blind pedestrians and the changing technology and geometry of signalized intersections: Safety, orientation, and independence. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 99, 587-598.
Geruschat, D. R., & Hassan, S. E. (2005). Driver behavior in yielding to sighted and blind pedestrians at roundabouts. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99, 286-302.
Wall Emerson, R., & Sauerburger, D. (2008). Detecting approaching vehicles at streets with no traffic control. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 102, 747-760.
Dona Sauerburger, M.A., C.O.M.S., orientation and mobility specialist; mailing address: 1606 Huntcliff Way, Gambrills, MD 21054; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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