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Federal judge ruled that Chicago’s failure to install APS is discrimination against the blind

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

Last week, U.S. District judge Elaine Bucklo ruled that the city of Chicago's failure to install accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at a significant number of intersections constitutes discrimination against people with visual impairments under federal disability laws. As such, the Chicago Department of Transportation will be required to install APS, push-button devices that include tactile and auditory information to help blind and visually impaired pedestrians safely cross the street, whenever an intersection is built or modernized. Read Bucklo's memorandum here.

CDOT has only installed a handful of accessible pedestrian signals. The ones the department has put in emit a “tock” sound to alert people with visual impairments of their locations, and the devices indicate the status of the walk signal via an audible alert when the button is 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.

This court decision was a long time in the making. It was spurred by a class action lawsuit filed back in September 2019 by Disability Rights Advocates and Proskauer Rose LLP on behalf of three individual plaintiffs and the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago. The plaintiffs were not seeking financial damages, but simply wanted to force the city of Chicago to get serious about installing APS.

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. In July 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced plans to install up to 100 new accessible signals citywide over the next two years. But by April 2022, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would be intervening the in the private lawsuit, Chicago still had only 15 accessible signal intersections. By January of this year only 33 intersections had the signals, WTTW reported.

“Federal law offers people with visual disabilities the promise of full participation in community life, and safely navigating city streets is a critical part of that," stated Assistant Attorney general Kristen Clarke of the justice department’s civil rights division in an announcement of Judge Bucklo's ruling. "We will continue pushing for a remedy that fully addresses the discrimination faced by blind people in Chicago."

"Less than one half of one percent of Chicago’s 2,800+ signalized intersections provide APS for blind pedestrians," said Disability Rights Advocates in a statement last week heralding the ruling. "This level of access may be the worst of any major metropolitan area in the United States. As a result, blind and low vision pedestrians are put in danger of crossing against the light, in the path of cars, every time they cross a street without APS. Having APS installed at these intersections means that plaintiffs who for years have resorted to taking circuitous routes to avoid particularly unsafe intersections, or who have avoided walking altogether, will have newfound security accessing a fundamental part of Chicago civic life: walking city streets."

“This is absolutely wonderful news!" said plaintiff Ann Brash, a former claims specialist for the Social Security Administration, in a statement. "It will not only help those who are blind and traveling around the city now, but it will improve the safety of blind people for generations to come."

“This decision sends a message to cities and towns across the state and around the country that they can no longer deny pedestrians who are blind full and equal access to signalized intersections,” stated plaintiff Ray Campbell, vice president of the American Council of the Blind and United Airlines senior accessibility analyst.

“With accessible pedestrian signals, us blind and visually impaired people will be able to cross streets much more safely, with less stress, and with more independence,” said plaintiff Maureen Heneghan, a volunteer at Chicago-based blind service organization Second Sense, in a statement.

Local sustainable transportation advocates are also speaking positively about the decision. Better Streets Chicago would love to see accessible pedestrian signals become commonplace all over the city in order to provide a basic accommodation that makes it easier and safer for people with visual and auditory disabilities to navigate the city," said BSC cofounder Courtney Cobbs (a former Streetsblog Chicago staffer.) "There's still more to be done to make our streets safe and accessible for people with disabilities and we hope the next administration will actively seek the input of people with disabilities and quickly translate it into policy and infrastructure changes across the city."

A CDOT spokesperson said the department would not be providing a statement on the judge's ruling because the city does not comment on ongoing litigation. However, the spokesperson sent this explanation for the slow progress in installing the accessible signals. "The city of Chicago fully recognizes the importance of accessible pedestrian signals. The pace of installing APS is impacted by the configuration, complexity, and current conditions of the intersection, in addition to long lead times on materials and supply chain challenges. CDOT currently has over 150 intersections where APS is either under construction, in design, or in procurement."

On Friday attorney Jelena Kolic of Disability Rights Advocates told WTTW the plaintiffs haven't yet communicated with the city about what CDOT will do to comply with the federal mandate. “I expect that the next step here will be a long and extended discussion… to come up with a remedial program, so to speak, that will basically be a blueprint for how the city can rectify the fact that its signalized intersections are not accessible."

It's been a long and bumpy road, but it looks like Chicago is finally on its way to becoming an easier city for visually-impaired residents to navigate.

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