Braille for the Feet

“It’s literally Braille for your feet,” said Jon Julnes, as he demonstrated the warning track for the visually impaired that his company installed at the Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District headquarters.

Warning System Signals Potential Risk to the Visually Impaired

“Alto. Dur.” You don’t have to speak the language of the country to know the meaning. Whether the stop sign reads “Alto” in Mexico or “Dur” in Turkey, people around the world recognize the red octagonal shape and know to stop or face potential risk.

But what signals potential risk or danger to pedestrians with limited or impaired vision? Jon Julnes, president of TILCO Vanguard Inc. in Maltby, has the answer. His company manufactures a detectable warning system that notifies sight-impaired pedestrians when they’re about to intersect with a road, parking lot or railroad crossing. The product looks like a plastic floor mat with raised yellow domes the size of two quarters stacked together and set 2.35 inches apart. “It’s literally Braille for your feet,” said Julnes. “Blind pedestrians feel a regular pattern of bumps underfoot. They’ve been trained to know this means ‘Stop! Beware! You’re about to enter a dangerous vehicular way or grade change.’”

Julnes began his business at age 17 in 1976. While other teens applied for their first job at fast food restaurants, Julnes entertained bigger ideas. He wanted to have his own business while attending the local junior college. “My dad suggested I paint (residential) addresses on curbs, but then I saw a parking lot that needed painting. I decided to talk with the owner about painting his parking lot and he said, ‘I’ll take a bid from you.’ That was the beginning of my company. I started with a four-inch paint roller and a gallon of traffic paint.” Julnes named his company TILCO (for The Indelible Line Company) and began striping parking lots with a Donald Trump-like zeal.

When the American Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, companies wanted to get up to speed with the bill’s federally mandated requirement for a tactile warning surface that would alert visually impaired pedestrians. TILCO got on board and began installing the “standard” detectable warning surfaces.

“At first, products with tiles came out,” said Julnes. “But you could not get them to stay on the ground. And every time I installed it I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. They were slippery. I’d often shake my head and think ‘there’s got to be another way.’ Then one day I was driving out of Woodinville and everything struck me like a ton of bricks. I’d been dancing around various ideas. And it suddenly hit me: I know the product! And here’s how we’ll do it. Rather than have a product with glued on tiles, my idea was to make ours out of epoxy with truncated domes as detectable warnings.”

In marketing his new product, Julnes ran into some roadblocks. “‘Big Box’ stores were familiar with the old product with plastic tiles,” he explained. “It’s like they were familiar with an old Model T with a crank and weren’t willing to look at a newer car. They knew the old product had tiles that popped off and they thought they were dangerous. Their concern was to not install our product due to the maintenance costs they believed were involved.”

Julnes noted the ADA requires private property in front of ‘Big Box’ stores to install a curb, railing or a detectable warning system on sidewalk ramps. “It’s a federal mandate and they must do this,” he said, adding, “And any time a new sidewalk ramp is put in by the city or for the city, they must have a detectable warning system.”

He cited the headquarters station for Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District and the PUD administration building as two examples of locations with his “Braille for feet” warning system in place. “We’ve been installing the system since 1994 and began marketing it out of state in 1997,” he said. “Along with easy maintenance, ours is non-skid which is great for people with cerebral palsy or an uneven gait. Also, a lot of cities have chosen systems with colors other than yellow. But yellow is the easiest for those with limited sight to see under any lighting conditions. Some cities have chosen to use black, but Seeing Eye dogs see black as a hole. Black is also a heat battery which is very hot to a dog’s paw. If a dog is jittery, it upsets the blind person. I really like to avoid black if at all possible.” Other companies manufacture plastic warning tracks made of injection-molded materials, but the competition hasn’t stopped Vanguard from growing 250% a year.

Julnes sees the future as a wide-open market. “We’re now moving to a point in history where we have the largest group of people retiring and older people with disabilities will be trying to be a part of their world.”

Thank you to the Northwest News of Woodinville, Washington for providing us this informative story. They can be contacted at 13342 NE 175th Street, Woodinville WA 98072, phone: 425.483.0606, www.nwnews.com/editions/2005/