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Bad braille plagues buildings across U.S., CBS News Radio investigation finds

The federal government, corporations, cities and even medical facilities across the country are looking past the needs of blind Americans by failing to address problems with braille signage.

CBS News has uncovered complaints to the Justice Department's Disability Rights section about missing or incorrect braille at a number of public facilities, including Albuquerque's bus system, restaurants in Kansas and Pennsylvania, and hospital and medical buildings in Chicago, among other locations. The records, spanning two years, were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Forty-one-year-old Vencer Cotton, who's been blind since birth, often encounters bad braille in Washington, D.C. Cotton says he once entered the wrong restroom because of it.

"I swing open the door, I dive in, and I get that screaming group of ladies in a haste to put me out," Cotton said. "And that was simply because the sign ... said 'Men' in the braille."

Accompanying a CBS News journalist, Cotton found incorrect and missing braille at a branch of the D.C. Public Library, which had a notable lack of braille signage and no labeling of audio books, which are a common way of reading for the blind. 

At the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the braille was too oversized to read for the blind. When asked about this, the National Parks Service told CBS News that the braille on the memorial was "part of the artist's design of the memorial," and was "not necessarily intended as accessiblity elements" for the blind. 

City Hall at the Wilson Building in the District of Columbia featured labels that were overly generic -- for instance, labelling a set of stairs as "stairs," rather than identifying the location of the building, like "northwest stairs" or "stairs 1." A bathroom sign for the men's restroom, Cotton said, was just nonsense. 

"Having a correctly brailled exit sign could mean the difference between life and death," he said.

Disability rights attorney and author Lainey Feingold says federal and state accessibility requirements are often ignored.

"Sadly, compliance with federal and state laws and regulations often don't happen," she said. "There isn't the attention to detail around accessibility as there is to other issues like security and privacy when really it is all the same."

A spokesman for the U.S. government's watchdog over accessibility design standards at federally-funded buildings--the U.S. Access Board--says older facilities and monuments are often excluded from disability guidelines. And the USAB says it has no estimate of how many federally-funded buildings are complying with disability access laws.

But almost 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, many visually impaired people like Cotton say the availability of accurate braille is still falling short.

Jake Rosen contributed to this report.