Access and attitudes are among the most pressing issues facing the territory’s visually impaired, and small, easy actions on those fronts would make their day-to-day lives much easier, several of the territory’s visually impaired residents told a Senate panel Monday.
The question came up as they testifyied before the Human Services Recreation and Sports Committee hearing Monday to support a bill that costs no money, creates no new service and has no effect on the content of the law. Right now, people with low or no vision who carry white or metallic canes or have guide dogs automatically have the right of way when crossing the road, regardless of traffic lights or other considerations – except for emergency vehicles coming through. A bill proposed by Sen. Sammuel Sanes’ simply changes the name of the law from "Blind persons; right-of-way; duties of operators," to "White Cane Law," to reflect more progressive language and respect the sensitivities of the visually impaired. The committee approved the bill, sending it on for consideration by the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
Josette Morris, a peer counselor at the V.I. Association for Independent Living, said the bill was necessary to bring "direct focus on individuals with disabilities who use a white cane." Using better terminology may help change attitudes, which Morris said is especially important.
"Time after time, safari (taxi-bus) operators have refused to stop for me because they see a white cane in my hand," Morris testified. Drivers "have literally run over my cane tearing it out of my hands," without stopping or showing any regret, and she has been struck by cars many times while walking the streets of St. Thomas, she said. A change in attitude and broader awareness would ease the day-to-day lives of the visually impaired in the community, Morris said.
Henry Smith, a computer specialist who is visually impaired, also had problems getting rides on safari buses, recounting an incident where a driver refused to let him on, and the rest of the passengers left the bus in protest and waited with him for the next one.
"I think our biggest problem is access," Smith said, responding to a question from Sen. Alvin Williams. "For instance, coming into this building, do you have Braille on the elevators? No? What floor am I on?"
Most stores do what they can, but there is not enough enforcement of the existing access laws, Smith said. More curb access points for wheelchairs to get onto sidewalks and into stores and more handicapped parking spaces are needed too, Smith said.
"Access is key. If we can get there, we can get around," he said.
It is important to properly barricade road construction and give the visually impaired advance notice before work happens, he added, or else they can find themselves halfway across a road stepping into a hole and not knowing what is in front of them.
Repainting many crosswalks would also help, said James Kerr, a visually impaired St. Thomas resident.
Frequently, when crossing the road at crossing points, Kerr finds himself at the side of a car that is blocking the crosswalk and has to decide whether to try to go back, wait, or attempt to go around the offending car, he said.
"They are easily trapped there by traffic and I don’t hold it against them," Kerr said. But "if those lines were freshly painted and seemed to mean something I think drivers would tend to pay more attention to them."
Voting to send the bill to rename the law giving the right of way to the visually impaired who are using white canes the "White Cane Law" were: Williams, Sens. Janette Millin-Young, Craig Barshinger and Patrick Sprauve. Absent were Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Shawn-Michael Malone and Terrence "Positive" Nelson.