It can be hard to navigate the obstacles and unexpected closures on Seattle streets and sidewalks.
For Larry Watkinson, 59, who describes his vision as if he were looking through a glass with a milky film over it, those challenges are amplified.
As a liaison between the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the disability community, Watkinson, who has nonfunctional eyesight, is in a position to understand the transportation needs of a community of which he’s a part and to help address them.
“I experience their story through their voice to try to make a difference through our agency,” he said.
In Traffic Lab’s latest Ask An Expert Q&A, we spoke with Watkinson about the nature of his work at WSDOT, how he gets around the city and what transportation agencies could be doing better to make traveling easier for people with disabilities.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q. What do you do in your role?
A. I’m the deputy director of the Office of Equal Opportunity at the Washington State Department of Transportation. My job is to resolve any kind of constituent complaint in the area of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’m responsible for the agency’s ADA compliance oversight as it relates to our website, all of our facilities, and ensuring anybody who needs any kind of public accommodation receives it.
Q. How do you get around?
A. I have a guide dog named Huey, a black lab, who’s 9 years old. I also use a stick cane, and I use the elbow of my friends.
I sometimes use a service called Aira, which is an application that you can open on your phone, be connected with an Aira agent, you hold your camera in the direction you want to go. If I was looking for a building, they would pull up a map of the particular area that would be able to pin point where I’m at and give me some walking directions how to get there. It costs about a dollar a minute to use that service per interaction so I don’t use it a whole lot. Sometimes I will FaceTime my children.
I also use a product called Nearby Explorer, which is navigational software for blind and visually impaired people. It’s the same thing as Google Maps or Apple Maps, but they’ve gone a little further and provide additional information based on what I need for a ZIP code. If I’m going out to meet a constituent and they live in the Ballard area, it will give me some descriptions turn by turn.
Q. What are the challenges you have encountered navigating Seattle?
A. It’s very hard for me to navigate in Seattle a lot of times because of closed sidewalks that are not posted far enough distance in advance for me. It’s also a very audibly tough city to navigate in right now. It seems like every block you go to, there’s a jackhammer or some kind of construction.
One of the big challenges we have in the city of Seattle is people like to leave their rented bikes all over the sidewalks. So, you never know when you’re going to have to interact with a sidewalk obstacle. When I have the dog, the dog simply avoids the obstacle. The dog will guide me around that, but Seattle is particularly stressful for my dog because of all the ambient noise.
There was a midblock closure on Fourth Avenue about three weeks ago. I walked midblock to find out there is no route around. I have to turn around and go back to the [intersection] to then go down to the next street to cross back over.
Q. Are there times when you’re not able to get around at all?
A. Sometimes, my family will say, “Let’s all go to Safeco Field [now T-Mobile Park] tomorrow.” They’re portable, and they go. Many years ago, my wife [who also has vision issues and doesn’t drive] and I quit begging for a ride. It’s been no secret in our family that we don’t drive. If you’re going to invite us, be aware of our condition of not being able to drive. Make an offer. It should not have to fall on one family member to be our sole driver. When we get invited places, if there’s not a public transportation option, if there’s not an offer of a ride, we usually decline.
Q. What have you learned about people who have disability issues through your work?
A. People think they have to drive. When all the sudden people can’t drive [due to a new disability], they believe their world is coming to an end. They go through this whole withdrawal process. I saw this when I worked at the Department of Licensing. You have people driving illegally because they had a suspended driver’s license or they were unqualified to drive and just dig themselves this hole of no return because they don’t understand that there can be life after driving.
Q. What could the city and state be doing better in terms of accessibility?
A. We could be making our websites more accessible. We could be ensuring that our sidewalks and curb ramps are accessible. We could be making sure our deaf and hard of hearing individuals get the same information that we get to hear in our ferry terminals.
The ADA is almost 29 years old. Why has it taken court challenges and court initiatives to force what should be natural for us to be doing?
I’m going to call us out: In 2009, Washington State Ferries had a court action brought to install visual paging in our vessel terminals so deaf and hard of hearing people could see what was being announced by the captains and people on the ships. I came to the agency in 2015. There were some folks at Washington State Ferries who knew about it but felt like they had put up a couple of visual paging devices in the ferries and everything was good and going forward.
In 2015, the deaf and hard of hearing community said, “This is your last opportunity to respond to a court order or we’re going back to court.” If captains announced that the boat to Orcas Island is delayed, the community felt that should be available visually.
Q. How do you prioritize accessibility issues?
A. We don’t have an endless checkbook to do everything that is right. We have to do what is practical. We need to come up with solutions. One of the best ways is to engage our persons with disabilities to have them help us decide what it is we can do this year, what we can do next year, and what should come in future years. Let’s not do that without them sitting at the table.
The more we make things more accessible, the more we benefit everyone regardless of ability. Who of us doesn’t use an Echo device or an Alexa device or say “Hey, Siri?” When you go to the grocery store, do you go to the electric door or do you go to the door that you have to push to open?
Q. What are issues you hear about with transit?
A. King County Metro does not auto announce bus stops at an audio level that meets ADA standards. People who are low vision can’t hear it. People who are low vision and are listening to ambient noise can’t hear it. When buses come to a stop and a person standing there is blind, they don’t make themselves known.
Metro could do a better job with auto announcers and ensuring their drivers do a better job of making sure the persons who are there are getting to their buses if they need it.
Q. What has been your experience driving?
A. I was born legally blind. I had some restorative surgery, and I actually drove for around 12 years — from about 1979 to about 1989. I always followed the rules. Even if it was not my accident, I knew it would be blamed on my vision.
I never read a street sign so I had to memorize where I was going to go. I would have to plan my trip and the right exit. I loved driving in LA because LA had nice big signs 3 miles in advance of wherever you needed to go.
Q. What are your experiences with ride hailing?
A. I use Uber. I use Lyft. They work really well until drivers reject my dog. I had two rides overlook me because they’re not allowed to stop in a bus lane. I get that. But I didn’t know I was in a bus lane. Then they want to charge me a wait fee.