Qusay Hussein

Austin and Accessibility

The transportation system in Austin, Texas is not working as well as it could for blind and visually impaired Austinites. According to a survey done by the National Federation of the Blind in 2016, in Texas there are more than 657,300 blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals age 16 and older. Even though there is a large population that identifies as BVI, and Austin is generally friendly to blind people, more can be done in this innovative capital city to make navigating in the city smoother and more efficient.

Eltis, an organization focused on sustainable urban mobility in Europe, recognized Barcelona’s innovation in accessible mass transit in 2015, when they looked at the impact inaccessible transportation on BVI individuals living in urban areas. As a blind college student, volunteer, and activist, navigating the city, my lived experiences were reflected in this article. I believe the three biggest challenges faced by BVI individuals in Austin are: public transportation, traffic lights without sound accessibility, and elevators not configured for blind and visually impaired users. Since Austin hosts two large BVI schools, it is important for our city to be more accessible and to serve as a model for other cities and states. Austin should foster its relationship with these schools and make Austin accessible to the students and faculty. A commitment to a blind-friendly environment will attract more blind visitors and businesses, like Austin-based accessibility technology company HIMS Inc., that cater to the BVI community.

Austin could be fully accessible, and though making it so would be a massive undertaking, there are simple ways government resources can be put to use to come up with transportation solutions for blind, visually impaired, and commuters with other disabilities to navigate the city easier. One far-reaching solution would be to improve the transportation system. For instance, the train system needs to be expanded to connect to schools and coordinate more seamlessly to other transportation systems (buses and taxis) and other parts of the city. In Boston, MA, the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau highlights their extensive train system which allows for smooth navigation of the city. As mentioned above, Barcelona, Spain, has made accessible public transportation a priority for the city. They installed a system similar to a GPS device to allow a blind person to identify the bus stop without difficulty. This device alerts a blind person exactly where they need to get off the bus. Their system includes a smartphone app, talking signage and ticket machines (that also use Braille), as well as textured walkways to help guide visually impaired passengers.

A seemingly small solution that would improve life for BVI individuals significantly would be to upgrade elevators technology in large buildings, hospitals, hotels, and schools. Elevators are not BVI accessible when they do not have a talking system. Even if an elevator beeps a blind person may still not know what floor they are on. This can be very disorienting, and it happens all the time at universities, schools, hotels, and hospitals. The city of Austin could work with every hotel, hospital, and school to install a talking system in every elevator. It could also create new rules and regulations for all public buildings as guidelines to follow, including schools, universities, and hotels.

Finally, putting more audible traffic lights at each intersection and making the sidewalks more accessible would help improve the community for everyone. While we currently do have some audio cues, they are mainly located at busy intersections and there are not enough in less populated intersections. Updating the traffic lights and the sidewalks would benefit many people in addition to the BVI community. Individuals with mobility impairments would benefit, and, in my observation, audible traffic signals help pedestrians focus on crossing the street safely.

Ultimately, if we take these steps, it will make our city a role model for other cities and countries throughout the world. Austin is the heart of a state that has more than half a million BVI citizens, and it should reflect the state’s commitment to helping them live their lives the best way possible. As the host of two large BVI schools, Austin should be attractive, not only students and faculty, but also to businesses and technology companies that cater to this community. These businesses would benefit everyone in the city and raise Austin’s profile as a welcoming home for innovators focusing on accessibility.