This winter, Benjamin Collins noticed something troubling on his way to work. The Special Olympics athlete and Operations Specialist at the organization’s headquarters couldn’t hear the countdown beeps and verbal cues at the crosswalks on L Streets between 18th and 19th in Washington, D.C. During his commute over the past 17 years, he and other pedestrians had relied on them to know when to safely cross the busy interaction.
Ben was forced to rely on his vision teacher’s guidelines: listen to the sounds of traffic or ask people whether it was safe to cross. However, that made for a longer commute. So, with the help of his co-workers, Ben emailed the District’s Department of Transportation about the problem. "Ben saw a need to help people like him be more independent and not just rely on traffic and others to help him cross the street," said his manager, Megan Gausemel, Director of Awareness Planning and Operations at Special Olympics.
“When there is a problem, don’t be afraid to speak up or advocate for yourself. You may help other people too.”
Within 15 minutes of sending his email, Ben received a voicemail from the Department’s Transportation Engineer, Anthony Dinkins, who suffers from glaucoma. Dinkins visited Ben two days after receiving the email. “My initial reaction was to make this a priority.” Dinkins said visually challenged pedestrians have reached out with similar concerns. “I wanted to do my best to ensure DDOT will do our best to give pedestrians a safe experience when traveling on our roadways.”
Making improvements to the audible crosswalks was expected to take 45 to 60 days but took only a little over a month. Although the volume for the audible signals between 18th and L Streets still needs to adjusting, the crosswalk between 19th and L has been upgraded along with multiple crosswalks throughout the city.
Ben continues to educate the public about the needs of people who are visually impaired through his informational speeches and sessions. He says area restaurants routinely offer outdoor seating causing obstructions for visually impaired pedestrians. Shared scooters and bikes can cause additional challenges that change locations from day to day.
“I think people need to listen more and understand how it is to walk a day in my shoes,” Ben said. “It’s not that we are ’dealing’. We are simply trying to be included like everyone else.”