For our August 19 Coffee Chat at No More Empty Cups, we were joined in conversation by Lisa Kelly, Enrichment Programs Director, and Doug Wampler, Program Facilitator, from Outlook Nebraska, Inc. ONI is a non-profit with a staff of 74, 46 of whom are legally blind, that pursues a mission “to positively impact everyone who is blind or visually impaired” primarily by providing employment. Other programs include “social activities, education, technology and adaptive aids training, and health and wellness programs” designed to serve and integrate the blind and visually impaired into the larger community.
To achieve their employment mission, ONI has built a manufacturing business that creates 100% recycled content toilet paper and paper towels that are sold to government and institutions. Thanks to the Wagner-O’Day Act of 1938, the Federal government is required to purchase products manufactured by people who are blind, when possible. This creates a market for nonprofits that employ people who are blind. The organization maximizes employment by minimizing automation. As Kelly pointed out, “Where other manufacturers have a machine, we have a person.”
Like any production employment environment, one of the primary concerns of Outlook Nebraska, Inc. is getting their employees to and from work on time. With over half the workforce being blind or visually impaired, the staff commute is a unique challenge for ONI. This highlights the intersection of the mission of ONI with the mission of Mode Shift Omaha, “To advocate for transportation options that enhance quality of life and opportunities for everyone to live, work, and play.” (emphasis added) According to Kelly, “Public transportation is our life blood.” But as the conversation revealed, public transportation is more than buses driving on roads, it’s the associated infrastructure of sidewalks and accessible pedestrian accommodations that connect bus stops with the user’s final destination.
While ONI selected their site because the location is on a major bus route, because the area is predominantly industrial the last leg infrastructure for people using transit, is sometimes absent. For example, as you can see in the above image, the southbound bus stop at 72nd and F Street, had no sidewalk, no level surface, no crosswalk, no stop bar and no audible crossing signal — not the safest environment for a blind or visually impaired. Working with the city, ONI has been able to get some upgrades to the intersection, including an audible crossing signal, but they have met with resistance on further upgrades, such as a stop bar indicating where automobile traffic needs to stop, leading to some ONI employees encountering a vehicle as they cane across the street to work.
According to Kelly, the audible crossing signal is critical to the visibility of the visually impaired in the community. When the blind and visually impaired don’t feel safe walking in the city, they don’t. This creates something of a chicken-and-egg scenario where the city doesn’t see people who are blind or visually impaired out walking, so assume they don’t need to provide the accessible infrastructure necessary for people who are blind or visually impaired to feel safe when walking. Frustrating.
Wampler talked about some of the challenges facing people who use Moby, Metro’s paratransit service. While Moby provides point-to-point transportation to within ¾ of a mile of the fixed Metro routes, the pick-up and drop-off times are approximate, and can be difficult to accommodate. For example, if a rider is using Moby for a ride home from work, and the bus arrives before the end of the rider’s shift, the driver will want the rider to leave work early — something not always possible or advisable. For visually impaired riders, the Moby will arrive at a location, wait their required time, and then drive off. The rider doesn’t see the bus and so doesn’t know the vehicle arrived. The driver may honk, but at an intersection like 72nd and F Street, that could be anyone. Lee Meyer, Mode Shift board member, added that even with the poor level of service, Moby costs far more than is covered by government subsidies and fares. The last interesting point we learned about Moby is that it is only available to people who live in Omaha — people who live outside the service area, like Wample who lives in Nebraska City, or are visiting are not eligible to take advantage of the Moby system.
The final transportation topic we talked about his how ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, have been a great transportation innovation for people who are blind or visually impaired. With ride-sharing apps, the rider can communicate directly with the driver — letting them know their passenger is visually impaired — and there is no cash exchanged since the payments are funneled through the apps. While there have been a few incidents where ride-sharing drivers have refused to allow service dogs to ride (a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act) for the most part, these services are another step forward in granting people who are blind or visually impaired a greater degree of independence in their transportation choices.
After talking about transportation issues, Wampler demonstrated the adaptive technologies he helps teach other people who are blind or visually impaired to use. He demonstrated a talking GPS and slowed down the speech rate on his JAWS for smart phones, so the sighted people in the room could hear and understand. JAWS is a piece of software that helps people who are blind or visually impaired navigate smart phones and computers with voice descriptions of what is available on the screen. He also talked a little about his service dog, which had had brought with him, and the level of independence having a service animal brings him.
Before concluding, Kelly passed around some appliances that simulated, for a sighted user, various vision impairments, giving attendees a brief sense of what people with visual impairments contend with on a daily basis.
Moving forward, MSO looks forward to working with ONI on issues specific to people who are blind or visually impaired. We talked about inviting the organization to present at a member meeting and we will help ONI advocate for expanded installation of audible crossing signals throughout the city. It is always important for us as an organization to keep in mind that what is a transit mode of choice for one person is a transit mode of necessity for another.