Some say on-campus resources for the visually impaired are lacking

Finding bus stops and using crosswalks are among the problems visually impaired people might have on campus.

by Ahnalese Rushmann

Ken Rodgers was working as a registered nurse in 1995 when his vision began to deteriorate.

Doctors soon diagnosed him with progressive outer retinal necrosis, which severely infected his retinas. One year later, Rodgers lost complete sight in both eyes.

Rodgers, 53, said continuing in the nursing profession would’ve involved constantly having to prove himself to others.

“I just decided, I think I’m too old for that,” he said. “I’d much rather be more effective.”

Rodgers knew the University offered free tuition to visually impaired students, required by state statute since 1938, and began the master’s program in public affairs in fall.

Around 50 students received the tuition waiver for the 2007-2008 school year, University spokesman Dan Wolter said.

Sara Hegge, a disability specialist with Disability Services, said there are approximately 70 University students with some level of vision loss registered with the office.

Rodgers said he figured the campus would be easily accessible for visually impaired students but found that wasn’t the case.

“I have been so astonished to find that there are no more accessibility issues built into the University than anywhere else,” he said. “In fact, there are probably less.”

Rodgers said smaller things, like ATMs, flat-screen microwaves in student lounges and vending machines are also hard to use when they lack braille or voice guidance.

“There’s stuff that everybody gets to use that I can’t use,” he said, “because it’s not made accessible to me.”

Rodgers cited transportation as a problem because there aren’t uniform signs or benches at each stop.

“I had to call the transportation department and talk to somebody and ask them to describe to me where the bus stops were,” he said. “That’s not being very independent.”

There’s technology being used in other cities that enables a user to point a small, radio-like device toward a bus and receive a signal indicating the bus’ route, Rodgers said.

Parking and Transportation Services spokeswoman Mary Sienko said the department wasn’t aware of that technology, but works closely with Disability Services to receive input.

“We’re certainly open to suggestions and new technologies, new ideas,” she said. “It’s a matter of how they would fit into our current system and what the cost is.”

Sienko said Campus Shuttles and Circulator bus drivers announce stops.

Visually impaired people can also call Paratransit Service, which provides free curbside pick-up, she said. The service accepts reservations up to two days in advance.

Phil Kragnes, who works with Academic Computer Distributing Services and Disability Services to provide access to adaptive technologies, is visually impaired and said campus and city buses haven’t been problematic for him.

“Most of the drivers, I can tell them where I want to get off or they’ll announce stops when they get to them,” he said.

Kragnes said getting around campus would be easier with tactile ground surface indicating how far along a person is on a path, or where a building is. The Scholars Walk is an area he tries to avoid, he said.

“They wanted to make sure it’s accessible,” he said. “But to someone with a visual impairment, it’s a big set of bricks with no real tactile method.”

Officials from Facilities Management, the department responsible for the physical assets of the University, did not respond to requests for comment.

Don Sobania, principal professional engineer with the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, said the city of Minneapolis will begin testing new accessible pedestrian signals.

The signals will feature auditory indicators of when it is safe to walk, in addition to a countdown, he said. There will also be a tone to let visually impaired people know where the push button is.

Three of the signals will be near campus – on 19th and Franklin avenues, Seven Corners and on East River Road and Franklin Avenue.

Kragnes said that, at times, the inside of a building is as much of a challenge to maneuver as outdoors.

“There’s all these braille room numbers, which is great,” he said. “But it doesn’t help you if you don’t know what building you’re in.”

Psychology professor Gordon Legge, who is visually impaired, said he’s been working on adaptive technologies, like a “talking” map for indoor navigation, for the past five years.

“It’s software that will create a map and computer routes and give you information in speech,” he said of the program, which works similarly to Global Positioning System and provides the user with a handheld, remote-like device.

Legge said the system is effective because it provides step-by-step guidance to the user. He said he wasn’t aware of a similar technology on the market.

“A white cane or a guide dog are great,” he said. “But they don’t help you plan routes.”

Legge said while the University isn’t perfectly accessible, he thinks it has been receptive to disabled people’s interests.

“We’re ahead of a lot of universities,” he said.