Yes, it’s technically accessible…
I moved to Downtown Concord from rural Tilton after losing the majority of my usable vision following complications with a nasty staph infection in my spine and subsequent reconstructive spine surgery. Tilton is a nice town that is growing but is still very much a one stop light Main Street and I had to walk with a white cane over a mile and a half to reach something like a store, a restaurant, or a pharmacy.
I began coming to Downtown Concord the summer of 2018 to practice the cane skills I developed through two summers of Orientation and Mobility instruction (O&M). I was working with another independent blind traveler with a guide dog and my instructor to learn and practice my cane skills.
Later that summer, stress at home associated with blindness and recovery from multiple surgeries put me on a path to living in Concord. With a stroke of luck, I landed an apartment two blocks from downtown.
A few years ago, the City of Concord undertook an ambitious effort to rehabilitate its downtown. Part of this effort was to focus on accessibility for everyone. Largely, this was accomplished. Downtown Main Street offers wheelchair accessible store fronts accessible to those using a wheelchair, walker, or pushing a stroller. Major crossings at Centre and Bridge street and Pleasant Street and Pleasant Street Extension offer audible and tactile pedestrian signals for safer crossing and tactile pads demarcating the end of a sidewalk leading to a street crossing or mid-block crossing onto Main Street.
I am grateful that the city undertook such a project and recognized that people like me are critical to the city’s future growth, whether as a resident or a visitor.
As well intentioned as these accessibility options are, it is obvious they were not fully considered from a blind traveler’s perspective. They may meet the technical letter of the laws pertaining to accessibility, but they often do not meet the spirit of the law and make my travels more difficult than necessary.
When I first moved to Concord, I was an intermediate cane traveler but in late October 2019, I was paired with my first Seeing Eye dog, Link. Through many hours of training and practice, we have a large inventory of blind routes to travel. I offer two routes and perspectives: as a white cane traveler and as a guide dog user.
Join me for a walk to Market Basket
I live near the Police Station. If I need to grocery shop, it is a half mile walk to Market Basket on Storrs Street. I start my walk with my white cane by connecting to North State Street. I first encounter School Street and walk on the south sidewalk. As I pass the church on my right, my cane digs into the sidewalk where the concrete has broken into potholes. This goes on for about 20 feet or so. On a number of occasions, my cane has caught in these potholes and painfully jabbed my midsection and shoulder.
Once successfully past the potholes, I head south on North State Street to Pleasant Street, my first major street crossing. At this crossing, I’m listening in at least four directions to gauge the traffic cycle. This high-volume intersection does not offer an accessible audible pedestrian crossing signal (APS). This means that I have to wait until I hear the parallel traffic surge before I can attempt to cross safely. If I misjudge traffic, I could find myself in a deadly encounter with a vehicle.
Now I have to travel east to the North and South Main Street intersection at Pleasant Street. Here it is safer to cross because it has an APS which tells me when I can safely cross. However, I only get four seconds before traffic surges onto Main Street. This invariably leaves me only halfway across the intersection when traffic surges again and the drivers who can’t see me begin to honk because traffic isn’t moving on a green light.
I cross safely. Now I’m headed down towards Storrs Street on the north sidewalk. My cane tells me a drop off of about four inches is one stride ahead. I have to get this right or I will trip and fall. I’m now waiting to cross Storrs street to Capital Commons Plaza. This light has no APS. At this intersection I have the traffic pattern memorized. I hit the cross button and wait and listen for when the traffic pattern clears and I make my crossing. This intersection has no tactile pads but rather simply ramps down to street level. I feel for this ramp but if I’m not paying close attention, I could miss the subtle groove where the concrete ends and asphalt begins.
Storrs Street is a bypass road for Main Street where traffic flows at high speeds despite being marked at 30 mph. I’m on the ball and nail my crossing. On the other side of the street is a step up which I have to navigate before I successfully finish my walk to Market Basket. This was the easy part, I have to do it all in reverse on the way home-this time wearing a heavy backpack and carrying groceries in my non-cane hand.
I need to buy a bus pass, walk with me to City Hall
This time I am traveling with Link, my seeing-eye dog. I leave my apartment and head north on Green Street. I cross School Street. Crossing Capital Street is confusing because although the city recently installed tactile blocks, they are semi-circular and do not provide a fast or efficient way for me to orient myself for crossing. A person without sight encountering this crosswalk for the first time may not understand the information being presented by the array of tactile blocks. This could imply a diagonal crossing, a left turn, or a crosswalk straight ahead.
Another confusing intersection near my home is at North State and Centre Street. The city newly installed a tactile block at the curb cut which indicates I should cross the intersection at a diagonal. This is problematic because a diagonal crossing isn’t particularly safe for a blind traveler. However, because I am traveling not just with my white can but also with my highly trained guide dog, I can cross Capital Street while remaining safely in the crosswalk.
After we successfully navigate this intersection, we cross to the left towards City Hall and locate the front door.
I applaud the City of Concord for working towards being inclusive to all residents and visitors. I love my friendly city and the opportunities it offers to me as a blind person to be independent. I do wish it wasn’t so difficult to use some of these wonderful accessibility features and hope city planners will think to consult the blind and visually impaired community when weighing future accessibility options.