Risks And Responsibilities

by Mike Freeman

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Mike Freeman is the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. He is thoughtful and alert to the nuances of daily life and social interchange. Here (with comments of mine concerning an Ohio incident) is a brief article he recently sent to the Braille Monitor:

          The legal doctrine of contributory negligence, as applied to the blind, held that if a blind person travelled outside his or her home and became involved in an accident, the blind person, simply by being present, was automatically considered to be negligent, no matter what the circumstances of the accident. For example, if a blind person were to cross a street in a pedestrian crosswalk in accord with the traffic signal and were to be hit by a car, the driver might not be held responsible even though the car had disobeyed the traffic signal. This doctrine severely restricted the independent movement of blind persons. It was a prime reason for the long struggle of the National Federation of the Blind to secure passage of White Cane laws in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. With the enactment of these laws, the doctrine of contributory negligence was specifically negated, and the blind gained the right to travel freely in the world on an equal basis with the sighted.

          While the doctrine of contributory negligence, as applied to the blind, and the underlying presumption that blind people are necessarily unsafe travelers have been eliminated from the law of the land, they have not yet been eliminated from the public mind. This was brought home to me sharply by a recent incident.

          I work at the Ross Substation complex of the Bonneville Power Administration in Vancouver, Washington. In order to get there every workday I must cross Highway 99, a busy four-lane highway. There is a pedestrian crosswalk with a traffic signal operated by a push button. When the proper button is pressed, the traffic comes to a halt, and a pedestrian can cross the road in safety.

          On a recent foggy morning a colleague at work remarked that it must have been more dangerous than usual for me to get to work, inasmuch as the Highway 99 traffic would have found it more difficult than usual to spot me crossing the road. Initially, I replied with some sort of flippant remark such as: "Well, no more than you." Upon a moment's reflection, however, I decided that a further explanation was in order. "There is a good traffic light at that spot," I said. "Assuming that both the vehicular traffic and I obey it, it doesn't really matter whether it's foggy or not. When the cars stop, I go. My safety is my responsibility; and, anyway, it's no more risky for me than it is for any other pedestrian crossing there."

          My colleague hesitated, then agreed. I got the impression, though, that he was not completely satisfied with my answer. The notion that the risks I take are my responsibility seemed a bit novel to him. Moreover, even if he were prepared to grant this assumption, I got the distinct impression that he didn't buy my argument that I, a blind pedestrian, was as safe a traveler (with or without adverse conditions such as fog) as a sighted pedestrian.

          This is the crux of the matter. Although we have virtually won the battle against insurance companies that discriminate against the blind, we still have a long way to go in convincing the general public that we the blind, as a class, pose no higher risks to ourselves and others than does the public at large, and that we can--indeed we must--assume responsibility for ourselves and our actions in order to take our places on an equal basis with the rest of the public in the continuing adventure of human existence.

          From the Associate Editor: Mike Freeman is absolutely right when he identifies his acquaintance's remark as one of the more benign but still dangerous manifestations of the conviction that sighted people must always assume responsibility for the safety of blind pedestrians because, of course, we can't possibly take care of ourselves. I am reminded of this truth every time a motorist leans out of a passing car to inquire of me when I am walking along a street in my small town, "Where are you trying to go?" First of all, it is none of his--it is almost always a man--business. Second, I am not trying to go; I am going. When I am lost, I take responsibility for asking directions.

          But there is still a malignant manifestation of the contributory negligence of blind pedestrians doctrine floating around in the public mind. It may have vanished from the law books with the passage of the White Cane statutes, but there are plenty of people who have not yet got the word.

          Early in March of 1991 an Ohio Federationist who uses a dog guide was crossing a busy street in her small town. She had the green light, so she and her dog stepped out boldly to cross the intersection. A young man, who was not watching carefully, turned right on the red light and struck both the woman and the dog guide. Neither was hurt badly, but the woman was taken to the emergency room, where her husband, a physician, eventually got to her.

          The incompetence of the officials who dealt with the case is demonstrated by one question the police officer who wrote up the accident report asked the victim's husband: "Can the dog read traffic signs?" No one from the district attorney's office ever contacted the woman to determine how serious her injuries had been. These two things should have prepared her for what happened in Mayor's Court a few weeks later when the case came up for hearing.

          Pronouncing it as his opinion that no blind person could independently cross streets in safety, the mayor fined the driver $10 and warned the blind woman not to travel alone in the future. No one knew or cared about White Cane laws or protection. It was obvious to the mayor, the district attorney, and the defendant that somehow the blind woman had caused the accident, even if she did have the right-of-way--and nothing she could say would change their minds. She is herself an attorney by training, and you can be sure that she did not remain silent.

          After this travesty of justice was carried out, she attempted to interest area newspapers in her story. They were not interested. She and the NFB of Ohio wrote letters to the mayor, the district attorney, and the police, urging inservice education programs for public officials. They could not be bothered. The woman is still deciding whether or not to bring a civil suit against the driver for damages.

          This is an unpleasant little reminder to us all that it is not enough to be in the right. Sometimes it is not even enough to have the law on your side. It is important to remember that we are farther along the road to freedom than we have ever been, but we are not there yet.

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