A Safety Guide for Disabled Pedestrians

Man in a Wheelchair.Table of Contents


At 20 percent of the U.S. population, people with disabilities are the largest minority group. And yet, far too often, they are overlooked and underserved. One area where this is especially true is pedestrian safety.

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act established requirements for “Curb Ramps and Pedestrian Crossings,” the measures are not enough to fully protect disabled pedestrians from the dangers they can encounter on the nation's streets and roadways.

Following is a resource guide providing information to help keep disabled pedestrians safe.

Street Smarts

Following are tips for disabled pedestrians on how to stay safe when using streets and roadways.

Know street boundary cues. These tips from the American Council of the Blind provide great advice for the visually impaired on how to detect when they've reached a crosswalk or sidewalk/street boundary. For example, the ACB recommends that the visually impaired assess certain cues, such as “changes in wind direction” and “a down-curb, curb ramp, or similar sloped transition in the sidewalk.”

Stay alert at railroad crossings. As this article notes, railroad crossings can be especially dangerous for pedestrians using wheel chairs or who are hearing impaired. It is important to use extra caution and follow these rail safety tips from Operation Life Saver Virginia.

Plan your route. This article provides safety tips for those using motorized vehicles. To maximize your safety, it recommends using a route that will allow you to use the sidewalk for the entire trip. And if possible, scout out new routes before using them to ensure you can safely use your wheelchair for the entire route.

Obey Walk/Don't Walk signs. As this information from the Jackson Police Department notes, those using wheelchairs are considered pedestrians and as such are required to follow laws set to protect pedestrians. One such rule is to always follow walk/don't walk signs when crossing the street. Do not cross if you do not have the “walk” indicator.
Stick to routes with Audible Pedestrian Signals. As this Pedestrian Safety Plan explains, audible pedestrian signals communicate “audible, tactile, vibrotactile and visible methods to provide crossing information to people who are blind, visually impaired or deaf at traffic signals.” Know which routes in your area provide APS and when possible use them over routes that do not.

Listen for “Walk” indication tones. As this article notes, to assist the visually impaired, some crossing areas produce an audible sound, such as a buzz or beep to indicate when it is safe to cross. Some crossings may also be equipped with vibrotactile “walk” indication pushbuttons. With these devices, the raised arrow on the crosswalk pushbutton vibrates during the walk interval.

Know how to cross safely. This comprehensive list of tips provides information for the hearing and visually impaired on how to safely cross the street. Here are a few of the lessons:

Make sure needs are met in temporary traffic control zones. This checklist from the American Traffic Safety Services Association outlines proper design for temporary traffic control zones. It includes a section on what elements must be present in order for these zones to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Know these important rules and if you encounter a zone that doesn't appear to be compliant report it.

Stay Safe Around Vehicles and Cyclists

Following are tips for disabled pedestrians to help keep them safe around vehicles and cyclists.

Use caution even when you have the right of way. As this guide on pedestrian safety notes, drivers must yield the right of way to pedestrians with disabilities. However, it cautions that despite having the right of way you should always exercise caution. Don't assume a vehicle will stop for you.

Know the “white cane” laws for your state. There are laws in place to protect pedestrians using white canes. Be sure you have an understanding of the white cane laws for your state so that you know what is required of drivers. The ACB provides a state-by-state list of laws and statutes.

Receive white cane mobility training. As this article notes, mobility training can help you learn to use your white cane safely and efficiently. Training can give you the skills to “move safely through indoor and outdoor environments,” provide you with “techniques for crossing streets” and much more.

Don't assume drivers/cyclists will automatically see you. This article presents tips for the hearing impaired but many of them are great for any disabled pedestrian. For example, the article suggests that hearing impaired pedestrians should make sure they are as easy to see for drivers and cyclists as possible. It suggests wearing clothing, such as a reflective vest, to increase your visibility.


Following are tips for drivers on how they can help ensure the safety of disabled pedestrians.

Be patient. As the California Department of Motor Vehicles California Driver Handbook notes, drivers should give disabled pedestrians plenty of time to cross the street. Do not try to rush them. Doing so endangers their safety.

Understand that wheelchair users are pedestrians. As this fact sheet from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services explains, wheelchair users, including motorized wheelchair users, are pedestrians and should be treated as such by drivers.

Stop within 5 feet of a crosswalk. The CA Driver Handbook provides a special section for drivers on how to safely share the road with visually impaired pedestrians. It explains that visually impaired pedestrians rely on being able to hear your vehicle to judge its distance. That's why it's important that you do not stop your vehicle more than five feet from a crosswalk. Drivers of quiet vehicles, such as hybrids and electric cars, should use extra caution when moving through crosswalks.

Watch for disabled pedestrians using curb ramps. As these pedestrian laws from Seattle's Department of Transportation note, curb ramps aren't always located immediately in front of a crosswalk. Disabled pedestrians using these curb ramps will cross as close to the crosswalk as possible. Be on the look out for disabled pedestrians who are using these crosswalks.

Shadow a pedestrian with a disability. In its University Course on Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation the Federal Highway Administration suggests a shadowing exercise to help students learn the challenges faced by disabled pedestrians. As part of the exercise, students are either blindfolded or use a wheelchair following the path taken by a pedestrian with a disability. The course is also available in pdf form.

Know when to stop. StreetShare.org's “When to Stop for Pedestrians” diagram illustrates different kinds of crosswalks. It is a great example for drivers because one of the crosswalks features a disabled pedestrian using a white cane.

Look before you turn. As this news report notes, disabled pedestrians can be in great danger when vehicles are turning right on red. Even when it is legal for you to turn right on red, look to the crossing area to make sure it is free of all pedestrians. Then, slowly and safely make your turn.