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NYC Transit Teaches Blind Riders How to Avoid Falling Onto Tracks

What would you do if you fell onto the subway tracks? It's a frightening question, one that's even scarier for riders who are blind. Visually impaired New Yorkers say it happens more often than you might think--many have become confused about where the platform ends and have fallen on the tracks, a potentially deadly scenario that keeps some away from the system altogether.

"A lot of people who are visually impaired or blind really sometimes don't even go out because they're afraid of what's out there, and particularly because so many of our stations are different," says Helen Hartmann of NYC Transit's ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] Compliance Office.

To encourage them to use the system, New York City Transit holds classes at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.

The students on this day were sighted instructors, but the classes generally teach the blind first how to avoid ending up on the tracks, but also what to do in the event they do fall. One lesson: learning the signal that tells the train operator to stop. "The stop signal is a vigorous to and from motion with your hand--side to side motion across your body. Do it vigorously," says instructor Vatche Varjabedian. "It's the same idea as when you shake your head no."

A blind person who's fallen to the tracks should show someone on the platform how to give the signal. "If you feel that the train is approaching, instruct them to run to the receiving end of the station, where the train enters the station and give that stop signal," says Varjabedian.

Students are also taught how to avoid being electrocuted by the third rail, and in case the train can't be stopped, they learn areas you can stand to avoid being hit. As New Yorkers learned from the heroics of Wesley Autrey, it's also possible to survive by lying beneath an approaching train, though not always. "Some of the tracks have troughs that if they were to fall on the tracks, that they could as a last-ditch effort kind of fall between them, if the train was going to pass over them. And they would likely survive because there was a lot of room there," says Hartmann. "But there are other types of tracks that if they went on them, they would not survive."

Transit officials say most subway stations have been fitted with braille signage and new, more prominent warning strips, but until the day the entire system is outfitted with platform doors like those in Tokyo, the need for classes like this one will continue.

Reprinted from NY1, New York, May 9, 2007: