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Justice is blind: Lawsuit to force Chicago to retrofit all stoplights with audible signals advances

Andy Slater. Photo: Baron Von Slater

This article is also running in the Chicago Reader.

Andy Slater, a legally blind 47-year-old media artist and singer for The Velcro Lewis Group psychedelic funk band, calls Chicago’s dearth of accessible pedestrian signals “a huge pain in the ass.”

Installed at stoplight intersections, accessible pedestrian signals (APS) are devices that constantly emit a “tock” sound to alert people with visual impairments of their locations. When a person pushes a button on the gadget, they’re provided with a recorded message or other auditory and tactile cues that tell them whether or not they have a walk signal.

Slater lives with his wife and son in west suburban Berwyn near the CTA Blue Line’s Oak Park stop. He said he first encountered an accessible signal in 2006 at Roosevelt Road and Wood Street next to the headquarters of the Chicago Lighthouse, a social service organization for the blind, where he worked as the news editor for its CRIS Radio station. The Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education, which also serves visually-impaired people, is next door, and the artist estimates that hundreds of blind people travel through the intersection daily.

Slater usually has to listen for traffic to determine whether it’s safe to cross a street, which he said is becoming more difficult as near-silent electric cars become more prevalent. At loud, confusing intersections, he has to ask passers-by whether he has a walk signal, or even resort to requesting that they take his arm and escort him across the roadway. Where they exist, accessible signals are a big help in making him feel safer and more independent.

As such, in the late 2000s Slater asked then-Second Ward alderman Bob Fioretti’s office if the city could install a series of accessible signals to help visually impaired Blue Line commuters like himself navigate from the Illinois Medical District station to the Lighthouse and rehab center. “They said, 'No, it’s too expensive,’” he recalled.  “I realized, ’Oh, I have to deal with City Hall? I’m not going to be the one advocating for this s---, because I don’t have time.’"

There appeared to be some action on that front in July 2019, the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, when mayor Lori Lightfoot announced plans to install new accessible signals at 25-50 intersections across the city over the next two years via a partnership between the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. At that time there were 11 intersections with the devices.

However, in September 2019, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a legal center with offices in New York and California, filed a class action lawsuit against the city and CDOT, alleging that the pace at which APS intersections were being installed was too slow. 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 systemically discriminates against blind residents and visitors by not installing enough APS devices at intersections.

The individual plaintiffs are Ann Brash, a retired claims specialist for the Social Security Administration; Ray Campbell, a senior accessibility analyst at United Airlines and a vice president of the American Council of the Blind; and Maureen Heneghan, a volunteer with Second Sense, a Chicago-based organization that provides services to the blind. “Sighted people wouldn’t accept having safety information about only 11 out of 2,670 [stoplight] intersections,” said Campbell in a statement when the suit was filed. “Why should I?”

By April 2021, about 20 months after Lightfoot’s announcement, Chicago had only installed accessible signals at four more intersections, for a total of 15.

That was when the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had moved to intervene as a plaintiff in the private lawsuit, applying more pressure to the city. “We are concerned about the serious lack of accessibility to safe intersection crossings for Chicagoans who are blind,” said U.S. attorney John R. Lausch Jr. for the Northern District of Illinois in a statement. “We are confident that our involvement in this important case will ultimately bring a meaningful resolution to the city.”

Asked about that development at the time, 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.”

However, at the present time, roughly two years and eight months after Lightfoot promised 25 to 50 new intersections with accessible signals, only 15 new locations have gotten the devices, for a total of 26, according to a CDOT staffer. That’s less than one percent of Chicago’s stoplight intersections.

Last week, the class action lawsuit reached another milestone as Judge Elaine Bucklo for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois approved a motion for class certification for the suit. According to Jelena Kolic, a Chicago-based senior staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, this means Bucklo found the plaintiffs to be adequate representatives for the class, which includes people who are blind or have low vision.

Kolic said Brash, Cambell, Heneghan, and the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago spent years advocating for more accessible signals in our city, and they saw the lawsuit as a last resort to get some movement on the issue. The lawyer clarified that the plaintiffs are not seeking a financial settlement (“No checks will be cut here”), but are simply asking the city be required to retrofit existing stoplight intersections, and include APS whenever new traffic signals are installed.

Kolic said Chicago may be the worst major city in the U.S. for accessible signals, with far fewer of them than western cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle. She added that New York City had more APS intersections than Chicago when DRA filed a lawsuit against that city over the same issue. Last year NYC was ordered to install accessible signals at all traffic signal intersections within 10 years, and Kolic hopes for a similar outcome in Chicago.

A spokesperson for Chicago’s law department declined to weigh in on Bucklo’s decision. “The city does not comment on ongoing litigation.”

Asked what he thinks of the local lawsuit, Slater said, “I love it. I was so happy to hear about it.” He added that if accessible signals were installed at every stoplight intersection in town, “I would feel so much more confident and safe to go out on my own. It just pissed me the hell off that the city either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, how important APS is for people like me.”

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