Making streets safer for people with blindness

Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard is the voice for people with disabilities on the Arsenal Street Corridor Working Group

Two people, one with a white cane, walk on a sidewalk together

Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard and interpreter Christine Dwyer pass a new apartment complex on Arsenal Street.

December 22, 2016

Jaimi Lard has lived on Arsenal Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, for the past 30 years. Now, the Perkins School for the Blind spokesperson is helping make the busy thoroughfare a safer place for people with visual impairment.

Lard is part of the Arsenal Street Corridor Working Group, which is assisting the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) in a formal study of the area. Other members include elected leaders, local and state officials, and representatives from nearby businesses and nonprofits.

Lard, who is deafblind, provides the perspective of people with visual and other disabilities who use Arsenal Street, but have concerns beyond the usual issues of congestion, parking and speed limits.

“This was the golden opportunity to have Perkins involved,” said MassDOT’s Michael Clark, who is leading the study. “It gives us that perspective that we might not necessarily get just from crunching some numbers on the computer or being here in the headquarters of MassDOT in downtown Boston.”   

Lard attends working group meetings with her interpreter Christine Dwyer, who helps her actively participate in conversations about traffic signals, bike lanes and bus stop locations. When Lard has a recommendation to make, Dwyer voices it aloud to the group.

In a one meeting, Lard urged state officials not to alter the location of a bus stop frequented by Perkins students and staff. Riders who are visually impaired often memorize the location of bus stops, she said, and moving one could cause confusion and even safety issues.

Lard has also voiced concern about the condition of sidewalks along Arsenal Street, where crumbling concrete and raised tree roots make travel unsafe for people with limited vision or balance problems.

“Right now there are some issues with poles in the middle of sidewalks,” she said. “We need to make sure that where people are walking is clear.”

On a recent morning, Lard and Dwyer took a stroll along Arsenal Street near the Perkins campus. After a few blocks, they passed a glittering new apartment complex with 296 residential units. The sidewalk out front was newly paved, but the prospect of hundreds of additional cars on the road troubles Lard.

“Most people are not paying attention to what’s going on,” she said. “They’re on the phone, texting, they’re busy. Even the bicyclists aren’t paying attention sometimes.”

The recent influx of development in the area is what prompted MassDOT’s study, said Clark. His team is focused on reducing traffic when possible, and on providing opportunities for people to travel safely, regardless of their mode of transportation.

“It’s hoped in the long-term we’ll be able to have streets that are considered ideal for all users,” he said. “It’s something that’s of the upmost importance for our agency to get right.”

In 10 years, Lard hopes Arsenal Street will be a true model of accessibility. If it is, she knows her membership on the working group will have played a role.

“It makes me feel good to be included in the process,” she said. “I think it’s important that I’m there. I’m a visual reminder that we need to make sure that we keep access open for everyone.”