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DOJ lights a fire under Chicago officials to speed up accessible pedestrian signal installation

An accessible pedestrian signal at Roscoe and Inner Lake Shore Drive. Photo: John Greenfield

The city of Chicago has previously promised to catch up with peer cities when it comes to installing accessible pedestrian signals, which help people with visual impairments navigate the streets. But on Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice put new pressure on Chicago officials on this front by moving to intervene in a disability discrimination suit against the city.

The purpose of accessible pedestrian signals, which constantly emit a “tock” sound to alert people with visual impairments of their locations, is to indicate the status of the walk signal via an audible alert when pressed. Since the button doesn’t actually activate the walk signal, you don’t have to push it if you don’t need the audible cue.

As of mid-2019, only 11 of Chicago's 2,672 intersections with stoplights had accessible signals, a fraction of the number in other major U.S. cities. That July, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced plans to level the playing field by adding up to 100 new accessible signals citywide over the next two years via a partnership between the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

However, in September 2019 the New York- and Berkeley, California-based group Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago and CDOT, arguing that the pace of installations still wasn’t fast enough. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago and three individual plaintiffs with visual impairments, claimed that Chicago ignored blind pedestrians’ safety needs in its pedestrian planning, which violated federal and state civil rights laws. Read the lawsuit here.

Plaintiff Ray Campbell, second vice president of the national American Council of the Blind, said in a statement at the time, “I have traveled with a white cane for over 40 years. Sighted people wouldn’t accept having safety information about only 11 out of 2,670 intersections. Why should I?”

Yesterday's announcement from the Justice Department that it would be intervening the in the private lawsuit stated, "Since at least 2006, Chicago has recognized the need to install APSs for pedestrians with visual disabilities. Yet, while Chicago currently provides sighted pedestrians visual crossing signals at nearly 2,700 intersections, it has installed APSs at only 15 of those intersections. The proposed suit alleges that the lack of APSs at over 99 percent of Chicago’s signalized intersections subjects people who are blind, have low vision, or are deaf-blind to added risks and burdens not faced by sighted pedestrians, including fear of injury or death."

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is taking this action to ensure that Chicagoans with disabilities are provided equal access to city services, particularly those services whose purpose is public safety,” said U.S. attorney John R. Lausch Jr. for the Northern District of Illinois in a statement. “We are concerned about the serious lack of accessibility to safe intersection crossings for Chicagoans who are blind, have low vision, or are deaf-blind, and we are confident that our involvement in this important case will ultimately bring a meaningful resolution to the city and its millions of residents, daily commuters, and visitors.”

The motion and complaint seeking intervention were jointly filed by the Disability Rights Section of the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. The case is being handled by assistant U.S. attorneys Patrick Johnson and Sarah J. North, and trial attorney Matthew Faiella. Read the motion to intervene here.

Asked about this latest development Chicago Department of Law spokesperson Kristen Cabanban stated, “While the city denies any violation of federal law, it does not oppose this intervention and looks forward to working with the DOJ to build upon the commitments and foundation it has already made in this area.”

Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said the advocacy group applauds the Justice Department's involvement in the case. "Having only 15 accessible pedestrian signals for Chicago’s 2,700+ intersections is unacceptable. This is about basic access and safety for some of our most vulnerable neighbors. If city leaders truly value equity, they would prioritize targeted investments like these over more politically popular car-centric construction and resurfacing projects."

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