Hearing Where You're Heading

San Francisco is expanding a first-of-its-kind guide for the blind and visually impaired.
by | April 2000

San Francisco is expanding a first-of-its-kind guide for the blind and visually impaired.

The system uses "talking signs"--transmitter signals that can be picked up by hand-held receivers--to steer people through public buildings and around city streets. Walking around city hall, for example, someone with a receiver going past Room 200 would hear "Office of Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr."

There are already about 800 transmitters located on four street intersections and in three transit stations, as well as in city hall, the main public library and the courthouse. Mayor Brown's 2001 budget is expected to include a significant sum to wire additional public buildings--a down payment on a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors last September that called for installing talking signs in all new, renovated and high-traffic public buildings.

Blind users give the system mostly high marks for offering cognitive information about their surroundings. But, at $265 apiece, the radio receivers are expensive. (Local businesses have donated 100 of them so far.) Moreover, talking signs are of little help, they say, until all buildings and public areas have them.

It will take some time to get to that point. Wiring the whole city is a costly proposition: the transmitters cost $1,000 each. And while the city has asked private shops and businesses to install transmitters, nobody can force them to do so. "When the transmitters are in all public buildings and private industry has them on their buildings, and we have them on all the crosswalks, then it will take off," says Richard Skaff, deputy director of the mayor's office on disability. "People will use it more, because it will be more of a system then."