This Mattered to Me
"Impact of Curb Ramps on the
Safety of Persons Who Are Blind,"
by Billie Louise Bentzen and Janet
published in the July-August 1995 issue of the Journal of
Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB),
Volume 89, Number 4, pp. 319 –328.
Recommended by Dona Sauerburger
This opportunity to contribute to "This Matters to Me" made me stop and reflect on — and
appreciate — how publications such as the
Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
(JVIB) have affected me and my professional
life. The article I selected to highlight in this
essay, "Impact of Curb Ramps on the Safety
of Persons Who are Blind," by Billie Louise
"Beezy" Bentzen and Janet Barlow, published results of research that was specifically
designed to answer a controversial question.
Why should that article still matter, years
after the question was answered and we, as a
field, have moved on? Because this article
represents the first time I remember reading
orientation and mobility (O&M) research
that questioned what we all "know" to be
"true," and because the research in the article helped settle a passionate argument.
This article matters even more because it
was designed to do more than answer a
specific question, it also provided valuable
information that changed how I teach.
Above all, it inspired me to consider the
importance of using "real-life" research to
answer "real-life" questions.
QUESTIONING ASSUMPTIONS WITH RESEARCH
THAT USES REAL-LIFE SETTINGS
To convey the significance of this article, a
bit of background information is needed. In
1991, there was a heated debate among members of the field of visual impairment and
blindness about detectable warnings at curb
ramps. One side argued that installing them
was humiliating, because such ramps implied
that blind people are not capable of detecting
curbs when, in fact, "as everyone knows,"
blind people can be safe travelers as long as
they have received proper O&M training. The
other side argued that, "as everyone knows,"
even with the best training, blind travelers
have problems recognizing where the edges
of streets are when there are ramps. The debate was impassioned, with each side citing
While the argument over curb ramps raged,
and the dignity and safety of blind people
hung in the balance, Beezy Bentzen and Janet
Barlow began to design research to address
this issue. The idea of using research to study
what we all assumed to be true, to settle
arguments with facts instead of anecdotes and
advocacy, was a revelation to me. Whenever
I thought of research, I imagined labs and
controls, bells, buzzers, and stopwatches, but
Dr. Bentzen and Ms. Barlow thought of real
life—real people doing real things, with a
minimum of manipulation from researchers.
For example, because they were only interested in what happens when blind people
walk along the curb ramp, they considered
having the subjects guided toward the street
to be sure they walked along the ramp. But
they realized that this would remove some of
the real-life variables, because a lot of information and cues individuals use to find the
edge of the street can be detected long before
they reach the curb ramp. The authors were
wise to realize that the subjects needed to
be allowed to engage in whatever approach
they would normally take as they draw near to
a street corner.
SEARCHING BEYOND THE ORIGINAL QUESTION
Since this article was published, I have read
other research that questions "the truth," such as
Duane Geruschat and Shirin Hassan’s groundbreaking study on whether drivers stop to allow
people with white canes to cross roads as "everyone knows" they do (Geruschat & Hassan,
2005). Dr. Bentzen and Ms. Barlow went on to
question "the truth" that blind people can cross
modern signalized intersections without Accessible Pedestrian Signals (see, for example, Bentzen, Barlow, & Bond, 2005). Recently, I participated in research that considered "the truth"
that it is safe to cross streets that have no traffic
control whenever it is quiet (Wall Emerson &
The article highlighted here and the other
valuable research that followed helped me
appreciate that when research exceeds the
minimum amount of study that is needed to
answer a question, it can yield valuable information that can change the world. After
the subjects in the article highlighted here
found the edge of the street, they were asked
what cues they used. What a bonanza of information that gave the O&M community!
Although that information was not included
in their JVIB article, it was made available
from the authors, and I started teaching my
clients to recognize and use the cues the participants described.
CONTINUING RELEVANCE OF VIGOROUS STUDY
Why should such research matter to us today?
One example of the relevancy of the research
conducted in this article is the issue of
whether people with visual impairments can
detect quiet cars, which is causing great alarm
today, and with good reason. "Everyone
knows" that quiet cars cause problems for
blind people, and such cars are being studied
in laboratories to find out how loud the cars
must be to be detected and what kind of sound
to use to ensure the safety of people with
visual impairments. Laboratory research is
useful, but we in the field of O&M need to
take a lesson from Dr. Bentzen and Ms.
Barlow. We need to conduct research that
questions "the truth" about quiet cars and
studies what are the real problems that these
cars can cause in real life, examines what
solutions can really work, and whether
those solutions will cause other real-life
problems when implemented.
Fortunately, researchers at Western Michigan University are currently studying quiet
cars at real intersections with real blind people. So thank you, Beezy and Janet, for the
insight and wisdom of your research—the
legacy of your article lives on!
- Bentzen, B. L., Barlow, J. M. (1995) "Impact of Curb Ramps on the
Safety of Persons Who Are Blind" Journal of
Visual Impairment & Blindness, Volume 89, Number 4, pp. 319 –328.
- Bentzen, B. L., Barlow, J. M., & Bond, T.
(2005). Blind pedestrians and the changing
technology and geometry of signalized intersections: Safety, orientation, and independence. Journal of Visual Impairment
and Blindness, 99, 587–598.
- Geruschat, D. R., & Hassan, S. E. (2005).
Driver behavior in yielding to sighted and
blind pedestrians at roundabouts. Journal
of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99,
- Wall Emerson, R., & Sauerburger, D. (2008).
Detecting approaching vehicles at streets
with no traffic control. Journal of Visual
Impairment & Blindness, 102, 747–760.
Dona Sauerburger, M.A., C.O.M.S., orientation
and mobility specialist;
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