Mean streets: Navigating downtown Durham as a blind person takes courage, a cool head and thick skin | News Feature | Indy Week
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Mean streets: Navigating downtown Durham as a blind person takes courage, a cool head and thick skin 


Mean streets: Our guide to making downtown Durham safer for the blind—and everyone

Navigating downtown Durham as a blind person takes courage, a cool head and thick skin

Where to go for help

Contribute to our crowdsourced map of hazards for those with limited vision around downtown Durham





A portrait of former District Court Judge Craig - Brown at home next to a portrait of teacher and poet, Andrea Applebee on her porch with her guide dog, Mercy.
  • Photos by Justin Cook
  • Former District Court Judge Craig Brown and Andrea Applebee with her guide dog, Mercy.

He must have heard the scuffing of my sneakers on the sidewalk or the keys jingling in my canvas bag. Or maybe the air pressure changed as I passed by.

"Do you know when the bus is coming?" asked the man standing at Duke Street and Morehead Avenue.

"Not for about 10 or 15 minutes," I replied.

He listened to his watch.

"Can you walk me to the bus station?" he asked.

With his arm on mine, the two of us strolled north to the death-defying section of sidewalk that ends where an entrance ramp dumps cars from the Durham Freeway onto Duke Street. To get to a nearby sidewalk, you have to time it just right and cross the ramp, preferably at a full gallop. There is absolutely no way to safely do this if you are blind.

This spot where the entrance ramp from the Durham Freeway converges with Duke Street is dangerous for anyone to cross.
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • This spot where the entrance ramp from the Durham Freeway converges with Duke Street is dangerous for anyone to cross.

On the way, the man told me he had become blind as a child after receiving too much anesthesia during surgery to correct a club foot. He had come to Durham for a woman. And the woman left him.

We reached the bus station, and I helped him find Gate Number 1. Unless you could see, you wouldn't know where Gate Number 1 was.

That experience about 18 months ago starting my thinking about the navigation issues facing people who are blind or have low vision. Then a man who works on the fourth floor of our building, Craig Brown, was hit by a car on Corcoran Street. He was hit despite having a sighted person as his guide and crossing with the light. (Brown and his guide are OK.)

A pole at the bus station with the number 12 on it. In the past month, the Durham Transportation Center has improved its navigability. It has placed these numbers on poles near the gates. The numbers are raised so people could trace it with t
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • In the past month, the Durham Transportation Center has improved its navigability. It has placed these numbers on poles near the gates. The numbers are raised so people could trace it with their fingers.

Three or four blind people often pass my office window along Main. Earlier this week, I watched a DATA bus driver help a blind man cross Morehead Avenue because the stop was not at a crosswalk.

The idea to make a blind person's guide to navigating Durham came to fruition in a mapmaking class at the Center for Documentary Studies. It was taught by Tim Stallmann of the Counter-Cartographies Collective, based in Chapel Hill, which makes maps that reveal more than merely how to get from here to there.

My classmates, Andrew Edmonds and Candice Jansen, and I decided to make a map not only for people with visual impairments, but also to raise the awareness of policymakers, elected officials and the general public. It's the perfect time to rethink and redesign Durham's downtown, which is undergoing enormous growth and change.

Go this way. No, go that way. Sidewalks are closed on both sides of the street at Church and Main. Construction at the corners—the south side is a condo project, the north side, a water main replacement—make this a danger zone for everyone.
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Go this way. No, go that way. Sidewalks are closed on both sides of the street at Church and Main. Construction at the corners—the south side is a condo project, the north side, a water main replacement—make this a danger zone for everyone.

Significant changes in public health also make accessibility a pressing issue. According to census data, more than 240,000 North Carolinians are sight-impaired, defined as totally or partially blind, or having vision of no better than 20/200. Because of increasing rates of diabetes, which can cause blindness, and an aging population, that number is expected to double over the next 30 years, according to a recent study, "Vision Problems in North Carolina."

Andrea Applebee, a poet and teacher, gave us a tour of downtown one Saturday afternoon. She used a cane, instead of Mercy, her guide dog, who had been working hard and needed a rest. We discovered just how hazardous, time-consuming and frustrating it is to negotiate downtown without your sight.

Applebee often walks downtown from her home in north Durham. Like many blind people, she has memorized the layout of central Durham. "We learn an area and extend our cognitive map," Applebee said.

But Durham is changing, and that map in her mind is becoming quickly outdated. At Church and Main streets, we encountered one of many sidewalks that have been closed because a building is under construction. While we, the sighted, could have peered around the fencing and the blue tarp to deterimine if the street was safe to cross, Applebee had to backtrack an entire block, listen for the traffic pattern — there are no signal chirpers at Mangum and Parrish streets — and only then cross the street, trusting that a distracted or erratic driver would not hit her in the crosswalk.

An open leading into Monuts. People with low-vision can be struck by doors that swing out toward the sidewalk—or that are propped open.
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • People with low-vision can be struck by doors that swing out toward the sidewalk—or that are propped open.

That's a dubious trust. Last week Applebee and Mercy came within inches of being hit by a van at Buchanan Boulevard and Markham Avenue — even though they were crossing legally.

Without chirpers, "you don't know how late the light is in the cycle," she said. "I'm waiting to hear cars go by."

Tactile pads, the ribbed, hard plastic on the curb cuts, present problems if they are incorrectly installed. "The point is that they direct you," Applebee explained, but in several instances, the pads led us diagonally across the street.

The city is repairing this sidewalk near 200 E. Main St. Until it’s fixed, avoid this uneven surface, which can be difficult for the blind to navigate with a cane.
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • The city is repairing this sidewalk near 200 E. Main St. Until it’s fixed, avoid this uneven surface, which can be difficult for the blind to navigate with a cane.

Applebee takes T-linx, a Triangle Transit bus for people with disabilities, to her teaching job at Meredith College in Raleigh. She rides the Bull City Connector, but catches it on Main Street, not at the Durham bus station."I avoid the bus station," she said. "I'm intimidated by it."

The Durham Transportation Center is difficult to access. From the west, crossing at Pettigrew and Chapel Hill streets is perilous even for the sighted. From the east and north, you have to cross the speedway that is Ramseur Street, then the train tracks, and then encounter several parking garages. Drivers, in their haste to leave the garage, can overlook people walking in front of them.

When the buses arrive, they announce their route numbers, but that still doesn't tell people where the gates are. And when so many buses arrive simultaneously, the announcements degrade into a cacophony of numbers. (The station recently installed tactile bus route numbers on the poles, although it's still difficult to know where to find them.)

click to enlarge A fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk. This obstacle is in the middle of the sidewalk along West Main Street, near the train station. Across the street a portion of the sidewalk is closed while West Village III is under construction.
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • This obstacle is in the middle of the sidewalk along West Main Street, near the train station. Across the street a portion of the sidewalk is closed while West Village III is under construction.

I walked down Main Street with Craig Brown, a former district court judge, who has been blind for 25 years, and Jonathon Kirk, who interns at the Duke Eye Center. Kirk is almost totally blind, but uses GPS and the BlindSquare app on his smartphone to help him find his destination.

But those apps don't tell the blind where to dodge the sandwich boards in the sidewalk or the row of chairs outside Dame's Chicken and Waffles. A blind person could consult a crowd-sourced map before leaving home for the day, but even that has its limitations.

"Obstacles change too frequently," Kirk said. "We need an app that will send out a wave, like a radar, and link to your phone to vibrate."

A radar app could alert blind people to hazards such as "doors that swing out," Brown said. "They can hit you in the head."

Brown has also fallen into an open shaft in the sidewalk, but he wasn't badly injured. It's the "little obstacles that trip you up," he said, the utility boxes and garbage cans and fire hydrants—there's even one in the middle of the sidewalk near West Village.

Most blind people have at least one story of being hit by a car. If not, they've almost certainly had a close call. Applebee's close call was near Duke East Campus; Brown's happened on Corcoran. Kirk was hit on Kildaire Road in Cary. "I was doing everything right, and the car knocked me over and drove away. You can trust the technology more than people."

A blind woman walking with a cane on Main Street. On a recent Saturday afternoon, students from N.C. Central were training to become orientation mobility specialists to help the blind navigate downtown. They were timing the traffic lights and
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • On a recent Saturday afternoon, students from N.C. Central were training to become orientation mobility specialists to help the blind navigate downtown. They were timing the traffic lights and analyzing problematic intersections. At Five Points, already a difficult intersection, the students said a car had just run a red light.


Ground Truth is a new monthly column that tells stories of our cities through maps.

Andrew Edmonds is a geographer who works in Raleigh at the State Historic Preservation Office in GIS Technical Support. He lives in Durham.

A photographer and curator, Candice Jansen is a native of South Africa. She works at the Center for Documentary Studies and lives in Durham.

Lisa Sorg is the INDY editor. Reach her at lsorg@indyweek.com.

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