Chicago crosswalk signals violate disabilities act, federal judge rules

As of 2021, fewer than 1% of crosswalks in Chicago featured accessible pedestrian signals, which can feature audio recordings or tones to communicate information about the “walk” and “don’t walk” intervals at crossings.

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Pedestrians cross the street Thursday at the intersection of Damen and Milwaukee avenues in Wicker Park.

Pedestrians cross the street Thursday at the intersection of Damen and Milwaukee avenues in Wicker Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A federal judge has ruled Chicago violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to install signals at most crosswalks that help people who are visually impaired navigate streets and reach their destinations safely.

U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo ruled Friday that the city’s lack of accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at crosswalks was discriminatory against people who are visually impaired because it deprives them of “meaningful access” to public benefits guaranteed by the disabilities act.

Bucklo’s judgment was issued in response to a lawsuit brought in 2019 by the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago and several visually impaired individuals.

Ann Brash, a plaintiff in the class-action suit, said she was nearly struck by a bus while walking home from work in 2017 because the crosswalk lacked accessible signals, according to the complaint.

Jelena Kolic, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates who represented the plaintiffs, said they were “thrilled that the judge recognized that public entities need to account for blind and low-vision pedestrians when signalizing intersections.”

The city’s law department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The suit accused the city of upgrading crosswalks without including accessible signals, which can feature audio recordings or tones that communicate information about the crossing’s “walk” and “don’t walk” intervals.

A crosswalk signal visually informs pedestrians that is is safe or unsafe to cross the street Thursday at an intersection in Wicker Park.

A crosswalk signal visually informs pedestrians that is is safe or unsafe to cross the street Thursday at an intersection in Wicker Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The year the suit was brought, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had promised to install up to 100 APS-equipped crosswalk signals to make Chicago “the most inclusive city in the nation.” But as of 2021, fewer than 1% of crosswalks in the city had the accessible signals installed, according to justice department, which joined the plaintiffs in the suit.

“Federal law offers people with visual disabilities the promise of full participation in community life, and safely navigating city streets is a critical part of that,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the justice department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement following the decision.

Colleen Wunderlich, who is blind, testified about her experiences in this lawsuit and said she was “very pleased” but “not surprised” by the decision.

Wunderlich said crossing the street without the accessible signals is “dangerous and unsettling,” and forces her to rely on listening for passing traffic or asking strangers for help. She said she hopes to see APS devices at all crosswalks in the future.

Janet Szlyk, president of the Chicago Lighthouse, a social services organization for the visually impaired, said she was “disappointed” it took a lawsuit to push the city to prioritize accessibility.

“It should be an absolute priority for the city. Accessibility is critically important,” Szlyk said.

The plaintiffs and the city have yet to reach an agreement on a remedial plan.

Kolic said she looks forward to negotiating the terms with the city.

“Chicago is a very walkable city, and it should be walkable for everyone,” Kolic said. “I’m hoping that the consequence of this decision will be that the blind residents of this city will be able to enjoy that walkability, just as the rest of us have been able to do.”

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