When Baltimore officials decided to install audible traffic signals at four busy intersections, they hoped to help residents such as Curtis Chong, a blind technology manager who navigates downtown each day with the aid of a cane and his ears.
What officials did not anticipate was that Chong and some other blind residents might not want their help.
Since approving the signals in October, the city has found itself in the middle of a heated debate about the benefits and drawbacks of the signals, which use a beeping sound or a human voice to indicate when it is safe to cross. The debate has split the blind community and has raised the sensitive question of whether special treatment for a disadvantaged group could do more harm than good.
On one side are members of the National Federation of the Blind, a group that represents 50,000 blind people nationwide and about 200 in Baltimore. They contend that beeping signals make intersections more dangerous by drowning out traffic noises that blind people rely on to cross streets.
They also worry that their members will begin to rely on the signals and lose subtler senses they have developed to maneuver safely around the city.
Most important, however, they think the signals send a negative message about the abilities of blind people, one that undercuts their efforts to break down barriers -- in the workplace and elsewhere -- that have frustrated the blind.
"Blind people have enough trouble in society," said Chong, president of the local chapter of the federation. "We don't need another thing against us."
On the other side of the debate are people such as Al Pietrolungo, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Council of the Blind, which has about 150 members in Baltimore and 25,000 across the country. His organization argues that audible signals not only are helpful to the blind but also are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The organization also disagrees with Chong's assertion that the signals will hurt the public image of blind people. That image suffers far more, says Pietrolungo, when blind people are hit by cars than when they use audible traffic signals.
"If I'm concerned about the image of blind people, I want to see them get across the street safely," said Pietrolungo, an examiner for the National Labor Relations Board.
Caught in the crossfire of these conflicting views, the city has offered a compromise. It plans to install the four signals -- the first is scheduled to appear this month at Pratt and Calvert streets. But the city also formed a committee with the two groups to evaluate the signals' effectiveness and decide whether other intersections should be added to the list.
George L. Winfield, the city's public works director, said that the dispute caught his department off guard. "It made our job difficult because we didn't want to put something in place that a whole group of people opposed."
The debate about audible traffic signals has not been limited to Baltimore. Lois Thibault, a research coordinator at the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, says lack of agreement between the two groups has slowed installation of the signals nationwide.
The signals were introduced in the 1980s. Early models emitted a beeping or chirping sound when the light turned green. Current models emit a soft tone or click that guides blind pedestrians to a button which must be pushed to activate the mechanism.
The signals installed in Baltimore will be the latter type. Others will be installed at the intersections of Pratt and Greene streets, Fayette and Gay streets, and Reisterstown Road and Patterson Avenue during the next two months.
"What these devices provide is a choice," says Pietrolungo. "If people don't want to push the button, they don't have to."
Chong acknowledges that the new devices might help at intersections that are particularly wide or have multiple turning lanes. But he doesn't think the locations chosen by the city fall in these categories. And he maintains that the signals will stigmatize blind people as helpless individuals who need special treatment.
"A lot of this issue is really colored by a person's perception about blindness," says Chong. "If people believe blindness is a terrible, devastating tragedy, that's how it will be for them. But if we see blind people as successful executives, we'll look a lot more cautiously at these devices."