[nabs-l] Cars for the Blind

Joe Orozco jsorozco at gmail.com
Fri Aug 6 14:15:14 UTC 2010

Dear all,

I don't know that airplanes are an accurate analogy to cars that can be
driven by the blind.  Airplanes may rely on autopilot, but this is also
supplemented by traffic controllers, and there is far more space in the
skies than there is on crowded streets.

My concern is the massive overhaul that would need to occur for these cars
to function.  You'd need to retrofit traffic lights, stop signs, speed limit
posts, construction warnings and all manner of traffic indicators to
communicate with the onboard vehicle computer.  In order for the system to
work, you'd need to retrofit all vehicles.  Otherwise, how is a car for the
blind supposed to determine when it is safe to change lanes on a speedway,
especially if the other driver is not willing to yield?  How does the
computer compensate for abrupt changes like black ice, and if the system is
relying on satellites, as it must surely have to do to navigate accurately,
what happens in tunnels where reception is lost?

My issue with this project is not the idea itself.  There is a plethora of
technology today that could not have been imagined even 20 years ago.  My
extreme concerns fall into two categories:

First, one of the compelling reasons to support this project appears to be
the reduction in unemployment.  Ironically, the NFB did not support the
accessible currency idea, among other reasons, because it did not feel
accessible currency could be linked to a person's ability to hold a job.
The thought was that people could either fold their bills or use devices to
identify them.  Now we're somehow saying that a person's inability to hold a
job is related to a person's inability to get there.  I am not ignorant to
the fact that there are areas where public transportation is weak or
nonexistent, but this is not a brand-new issue.  A lot of local chapters
routinely battle with their transit authorities to expand service, and I
have to wonder why it is we have not taken a more systematic strategy to try
to mitigate the problem.

Yet, more to the point, the problem with linking accessible currency and
cars for the blind to employment is that these factors only answer the
question of means to employment, not employment opportunities themselves.
The high unemployment rate partly has to do with qualifications.  It partly
has to do with independent living skills.  It more than likely has to do
with other issues, but I would be willing to bet that it largely has to do
with attitudes.  Until we do more to change the overwhelming perception that
blind people are inept, I don't know how we're supposed to assume drivable
cars are going to make blind people employable.  My sense is that if blind
people were seen driving by, the casual bystander would be awed by the
engineering that went into the vehicle, not by the blind driver.

I won't even elaborate on the cost of such a technology to the end consumer.
I'll only say that we should look around at the cost of adaptive technology
now.  Add this to the cost of a new vehicle, its general maintenance and the
expense of its special technology.  Is someone going to argue that the
introduction of these vehicles is going to miraculously place blind people
in comfortable jobs with ample salaries to cover the expenses?

My second concern is my old mantra.  I question this race to make blind
people so much like sighted people.  Note this is not an "us" versus "them"
argument.  It just seems that we spend so much fundraising power and labor
on making it possible for blind people to do things like our sighted peers
that I wonder if it might not make more sense to invest in preventing
blindness altogether.  It seems we currently spend carrying out a mission of
suppositions: if we can convince people to follow universal access, if we
could raise the caps on social security, if we could get more people to read
Braille, if we could drive cars, if our notetakers could have more features,
if more books were accessible, if more websites were accessible...

I anticipate a counter argument that we cannot make things better for the
blind and try to reduce blindness simultaneously.  But, we haven't been
doing too much for the blind either.  Instead, the selling point for this
year's donor drive was to promote a project that our generation may not even
be able to witness.  I mean, what happened to good ol' grassroots
organizing?  Self-advocacy?  It's astounding how much the work of the
organization has changed in just the nine years I've been around.  Here here
for a car blind people may be able to drive in the distant future, but in
the meantime I'd sure like to see more blind people receiving the training
and equipment they need to be able to get good jobs, raise good families and
comfortably say they could afford all the technology that is yet to come.

Anyway, just my twenty dollar's worth,


"Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves,
some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all."--Sam Ewing 

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