Ending the Blind Curfew

Last week Brisbane City Council advised that all audible traffic signals would operate 24 hours a day seven days a week, ending the curfew for people who are blind or have low vision in Brisbane which has applied for more than fifteen years. Previously, many signals were turned off at 9:30 at night, and back on at 6:30 in the morning.

I concgratulate Brisbane City Council for this decision. It is a triumph of committed people over bad policy.

I visited Brisbane to attend a conference several months ago. I was planning where I should have dinner, and someone commented that I would need to start dinner early, as I would have to be home by 9:30 at night. Being unused to having a curfew, I questioned this. It’s because the audible traffic signals are turned off at that time, I was told. I could not believe it!

As it happened, I was unusually well behaved at dinner that night, and I was home before 9:30. But the next morning I took my guide dog out for an early walk- prior to 6 AM. And as advised, there were no audible traffic signals to let me know when I could cross the road. I was a prisoner of the Brisbane City Council policy.

I did some research, and found that this policy had been in place for more than fifteen years. This was due to a councillor who had once been kept awake by similar signals in New Zealand. I knew, however, that the volume of such signals was controlled by a monitoring microphone, so that when traffic and other noise was quiet, as it often is in the middle of the night, the signals are quiet as well. So this equipment had not been working in New Zealand all of those years ago, or he had only had a small travel budget, and managed it by sleeping on the footpath next to the light pole.

I was so outraged that people who were blind or had low vision in Brisbane could be so disadvantaged by the ill-informed whim of a policy maker with insomnia that I talked to a journalist about it. She thought it would make an excellent story, and the rest – as they say – is history.

The media ran with the story, and I did interviews across the country. The policy was made to look silly, and – after further consultation by council with relevant disability organisations- it was changed.

This story made me think about the language I had used. What seemed to concern council most was that I had referred to the policy as a “blind curfew”. I did so because that is how I had regarded it. But the reaction this received demonstrated the importance of the language which we use.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities seeks to shift the mind-set about us from objects of pity to subjects with rights, and from our disability being the barrier to the environment in which we live being the barrier. Thus, it was not that I could not see which prevented me from crossing the road, it was that there was no audible traffic signal to give me the same information which people who see received.

I was once counselled by a colleague for whom I have great respect not to refer to the policy – applied by most airlines in Australia – of only carrying two passengers who use wheelchairs as “wheelchair apartheid”. She was shocked by the use of apartheid in that way, because of its origin. Apartheid is the system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race in force in South Africa from 1948-ia. It comes from the Afrikaans, and literally means separateness.

I thought very carefully about this advice, because I valued my colleague’s judgement highly. But I decided to continue to use the expression, because treating people with disabilities separately and differently is exactly what the “two wheelchair” policy does. This process confirmed the importance of describing such policies by their impact, and effectively “calling out” the policy-makers for what they had done to people with disabilities.

Perhaps it was the use of the term “blind curfew” which swayed the policy-makers, or caught their attention. I don’t know. But there is no doubt that good advocacy, and implementation of the disability convention, requires clarity on the barriers in our environment, and their effect.

What do you think? Should we describe such policies in this emotive way? Should we call a spade a spade?

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