For UT students who are visually impaired, crossing the streets along the edge of campus can involve navigating complicated and busy intersections, irregular traffic cycles and unfamiliar areas — without being able to see the pedestrian crossing signals.
“When you’re standing at a crosswalk, sighted people can easily know when it’s time to cross and how much time they have to make it,” said marketing junior Emeline Lakrout, who is blind. “People with impaired vision might be able to listen and decide it’s safe to cross, but we have no way of knowing how much time is left to cross.”
To help make the area near UT more accessible, the Austin Transportation Department recently installed three Accessible Pedestrian Signals at the intersections of Guadalupe street and 21st, 22nd and 24th streets, ATD traffic engineer Robin Osborne said.
The signals make sounds at crosswalks in order to help people who are blind or visually impaired locate the pedestrian push-button and know when to cross the street, according to the City’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan.
“We got a request from an incoming UT student who was concerned about their ability to cross Guadalupe Street,” Osborne said. “We took a close look at that area and determined it was necessary to install APS buttons prior to the start of the school year.”
There are currently 263 intersections around Austin that have at least one direction outfitted with an APS button, Osborne said. The signals have been installed as needed over the past five years.
In 2015, the City received a $2.4 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to install APS’s at 26 specific locations across Austin. To date, 17 of the 26 have had signals installed, ATD pedestrian coordinator Joel Meyer said.
Osborne said he anticipates more APS buttons will be installed near campus in the future, but the process takes time and adequate funding.
“I would imagine campus is an area that would greatly benefit from these signals, but we can’t just snap our fingers and make them appear,” Osborne said. “There’s a lot that goes into getting them up and running.”
Daniel Smith, a religious studies graduate student who is blind, said the APS’s create a more welcoming environment for people coming to UT’s campus.
“Without (APS’s), you’re essentially asking people who have a visual or other kind of disability to find another way around or to rely on someone else to help them,” Smith said.
Lakrout also said she appreciates ATD taking steps to make the area near campus more accessible to people with disabilities.
“Adding the buttons helps level the playing field, which should be the goal of everything today,” Lakrout said. “I grew up in San Antonio, where there are APS buttons all over the downtown area. When I came to UT as a freshman, it felt like I stepped 20 years back in time.”
Lakrout said she would love to see more APS buttons near campus, especially along Dean Keeton street and MLK Boulevard.
“There’s still a lot that can be done to make Austin and UT more accessible, but I’m happy somebody went ahead and actually did something this time,” Lakrout said. “Hopefully it means attitudes are shifting and people are becoming more mindful about accessibility issues.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the city had received funding to install 27 Accessible Pedestrian Signals but they only received funding for 26. The Texan regrets this error.