'I get disoriented': Why a system designed to help the visually impaired needs a rethink

The audible signal system designed to make it safer for the visually impaired to cross busy intersections needs a rethink, community advocates say. They're pushing for some high-tech solutions already being tried in other Canadian cities.

City looking at new technology to help the visually impaired safely cross the street

Daniel Walukiewicz crossing the intersection at Dundas Street West and Burnhamthorpe Road. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Daniel Walukiewicz knows how dangerous it can be for anyone who's visually impaired to cross major intersections in Toronto, but an incident that happened about a month ago really drove it home.

The 40-year-old former steelworker, who found out he had retinitis pigmentosa in 2006 and is now blind, was out with his orientation and mobility instructor, Mark Rankin. They were trying to navigate the busy intersection at Dundas Street West and Burnhamthorpe Road near his home.

"There were a couple of times where me and my guide dog went into traffic," Walukiewicz said Monday.

"[Mark] had to grab my arm and push me over to the side. That's why I get a little nervous in my area, so I try to avoid that intersection," he said.

Mark Rankin, left, is an orientation and mobility instructor who works with Daniel Walukiewicz, right. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Part of Walukiewicz's problem, ironically, stems from the more than 840 accessible pedestrian signals (APS) across the city that were designed for people like him.

When the system was first installed, the audible signals came on automatically with a press of the button. But then, after complaints about the noise, the design was changed.

Noise complaints

Now at most intersections, they activate only when someone holds the button down for three seconds.

"I know there have been complaints about the audible signals … from people living near the intersections," Rankin said. "I don't know why it's such a big deal to people."

For people like Walukiewicz, it's made the system harder to use.

An APS button at an intersection off Yonge Street just north of St. Clair Avenue. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

He says he rarely has trouble finding the button, which emits a locator tone.

But the buttons are on the left side of the crossing — the same side his guide dog is on — which makes it hard for him to reach. Once he does locate it, he finds it hard to re-orient himself to cross the intersection. And then, the signals themselves can cause problems.

"I get disoriented," he told CBC Toronto. "Usually, both corners beep at the same time, so I get confused whether I'm going east-west or north-south," he said.

'The locator tone is great — if you can hear it'

There are other problems stemming from rising noise levels in Toronto, says Debbie Gillespie, 64, with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). She's working with the city to find solutions. 

"The locator tone is great — if you can hear it," Gillespie said Friday, shouting over the heavy traffic and construction at the northeast corner of St. Clair Avenue and Yonge Street.

Gillespie has been visually impaired all her life and gets around with the help of a guide dog.

Debbie Gillespie, the CNIB's lead for built environment and transit advocacy, says rising noise levels in the city are making it harder for visually impaired people to safely navigate. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

But she says even she has challenges because street noise in Toronto has risen sharply in the last five years from higher volumes of traffic and the downtown construction boom.

"In an environment such as this it's difficult to even know if an APS is there … They actually do have what is known as a locator tone, but in an environment such as we're standing in right now you might not hear that."


Gillespie says there is a high-tech solution to the problems APS systems pose, patented by an Ottawa-based startup called Key2Access in 2016.

It doesn't replace cities' current APS systems. Instead, it connects with and complements them.

"The Key2Access product employs two pieces of technology," Gillespie said.

One, she says, is a keyfob people can carry. The fob has buttons they can press to activate the signals themselves. It also comes in the form of a smartphone app.

Either way, the user doesn't have to go searching for a button by the side of the road. And it's free.

"You can still hear the signal being activated," Gillespie said. "You do not have to go … off your line of travel to activate the button and then re-align yourself with the crossing."

What the city is doing

Key2Access is running pilot projects in Ottawa, Montreal, Brossard, Que. and Winnipeg.

But things haven't progressed to that stage yet in Toronto.

In an email to CBC Toronto Monday, the city said it is working with stakeholders like the CNIB to solve the issues with its APS system and is investigating the latest technological advances.

"Part of this investigation includes looking at cellular or FOB key technology to remotely push the button and provide additional safety information to the visually impaired to improve the safety of their walking experience," Eric Holmes of the city's strategic communications department wrote in the email.

Key2Access provides a fob people can carry to activate the pedestrian crossing signals themselves rather than trying to find the button at the intersection. It also comes in the form of a smartphone app. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

"This initiative is also in the preliminary stages whereby we are in dialogue with vendors and stakeholders on a possible pilot project."

Meantime, Walukiewicz continues to work at mastering the task of crossing the city's major intersections — a complicated process that Rankin says can typically take "between three months to a year-and-a-half to two years to learn."

"When I totally lost my vision, I realized how I took my vision for granted and kind of cheated my way through the crossing," Walukiewicz said.

"The traffic around here, the drivers around here are not very considerate. It's been a lot of close calls."

With files from Lisa Xing