Q&A with Karen Gourgey, Chair of the Executive Board of the NY State Commission for the Blind

This installment of our Accessibility Activists column is an interview with Karen Gourgey, Chair of the Executive Board of the NY State Commission for the Blind. She has also served as the Director of the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, City University of New York, since 1983.

When did you first get started in accessibility?

I guess I should say the year was 1977, when the Statistics and Computer Information Systems Department here at Baruch College offered a free course in FORTRAN to see whether they could teach blind people to program, using structured sentences instead of flow charts. I learned then that the computer, or digital technology, could potentially create output in any form imaginable, including enlarged print, synthetic speech, and/or braille; so suddenly, there was the potential to crash through the print barrier.

You are on the Steering Committee of PASS (Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets), and you were Chair for some time. Looking back on your work there, are there any projects you feel especially proud of?

All of the projects are works in progress. However, Before PASS began its work, fewer than 25 intersections per year were being equipped with Accessible Pedestrian Signals, aps. Now, we are at 150 intersections per year.

Also, I believe we were instrumental in the Department of Transportation’s decision to hire a policy analyst responsible for disabilities concerns. He is in place, and PASS meets with him quarterly.

We have brought issues in modern intersection design and especially signaling, which are a threat to the safety of blind and low vision travelers, to the attention of DOT and the city Council.

You recently became Chair of the Executive Board of the [NY] State Commission for the Blind. Can you tell us some things you hope to accomplish in this new role?

Our Board hopes to raise the visibility and the funding available for services to two under-served groups of New Yorkers with significant vision loss. These are people above 65, and people younger than 3 years of age. The State does not have a mechanism for providing sufficient direct services to older New Yorkers who are blind or low vision. We know that many of these individuals could have measurably better lives, were there funding to provide appropriate rehabilitation services and support to them. Similarly with infants, there is a law on the books that screens for hearing loss at birth. No such statute exists for vision loss. We know that the earlier medical intervention or educational intervention can happen for these youngest citizens, the better the potential for full development will be. We as a board are working hard to raise awareness of both of these issues, so that we can move toward results that truly can enhance lives.

In addition to pedestrian concerns, what are some other accessibility issues you would like to see solved?

Certainly the issues mentioned earlier qualify. Now you’re asking me to dream! I would like accessibility features to be part of the built environment as a matter of course, not as some kind of special feature. For example, say I wanted to take a walk with my guide dog along a pedestrian path by a river. Typically, those paths are for pedestrians and cyclists and the only divider is a drawn/painted line of some color or other. Quite useless to me. Why is there not a kind of warning strip indicating that separation, so that I could feel safe and happy to take that walk on my own? Similarly, I believe that every signalized intersection should be outfitted with an accessible pedestrian signal. Our community is still far too invisible; it needs to be known that we, as any other minority, are a part of the wider community. Our environment, our laws and our technology need to reflect that.

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