Navigating public spaces for those visually impaired

It is estimated that there are 30,000 individuals in New Zealand affected by blindness or low vision (low vision refers to people who have limited useful sight, even with their best pair of glasses). 64% are people aged 65 and above.

Most Common Eye Conditions in New Zealand

The most common eye conditions underlying blindness and low vision in New Zealand are age-related macular degeneration (AMD), diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts. For more information on these conditions, read our previous post about Age-related eye diseases and conditions. Significant numbers of Kiwis are affected by all of these – note though, that only a minority of Kiwis affected by each condition will also have blindness or low vision, as these conditions are generally progressive (vision deteriorates over time).

It is estimated that 207,000 Kiwis have AMD. It affects 35% of Blind Foundation clients. It is projected that by 2030, 352,000 Kiwis will have AMD.

Glaucoma is estimated to affect some 70,000 Kiwis. This makes it the second most common cause of blindness and low vision in New Zealanders over 65. However, half of those with the condition are not aware they have it.

About 370,000 are estimated to have cataracts. Cataracts are the most common correctable eye disease causing blindness and sight loss in Kiwis. 30,000 cataract surgeries are performed every year in New Zealand. In over 95% of cases, surgery is successful.

What does this mean for people navigating public spaces?

People who are blind, have low vision, or are vision impaired (a catch-all term that includes people with any visual deficit that cannot be corrected by wearing contact lenses or glasses) have different needs to navigate public spaces than sighted people. If the goal for public spaces is to encompass a universal design, everyone should be accommodated. In the built environment accessibility means designed spaces that meet the needs of people with a wide range of abilities, including those who are blind or who have limited vision and associated cognitive difficulties.

Tactile paving provide underfoot information at pedestrian crossings and other critical transportation areas. These tactile cues say to those with impaired sight “You are approaching a curb cut,” “Wait here for the train,” and “There are stairs ahead.” They are one way to help contextualise a space for those with vision impairments. Crossings with audio prompts that are easy to distinguish from other potential sounds are also being used in New Zealand to assist people with vision impairments.

They aren’t perfect however. Items and prompts that are already in place in many urban areas including curb cuts do not steer blind users in the correct direction when crossing an intersection. Different crossings require different approaches to activate the button, and there are assumptions that the user has adequate mobility.

Many designers of public spaces often think about things like “can people navigate this space”, but do not necessarily go as far to think about how to make this space work optimally for all. It is about thinking about information not just the physical space.

For example, the ability to use public transport with confidence is a major part of universal design. In the USA, some organisations are working on projects to allow people with vision impairments to plan ahead which removes the fear associated with navigating busy city streets. In San Francisco, Dr. Joshua Miele, a scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, has partnered with LightHouse, an organization for the blind for which Downey serves as a board member. Together, they created accessible maps of every BART transit station. The maps – which are tactile, feature large print, and contain an audio component – allow individuals to plan a path of travel. “This is really the first time [a visually impaired person] can sit in their living room and orient themselves to a BART station that they plan on visiting, plan a path of travel from the entrance, to the turnstyles, to the platform, and then off the train and to the bus stop,” says Miele. “That’s really special.”

Closer to home, in Melbourne a pilot program using Bluetooth technology is transforming how individuals navigate the Southern Cross Railway Station. Through Bluetooth and BlindSquare – a free GPS app – users receive audio cues via their smartphones. The navigation system provides directions, real-time information, and advice such as, “Approaching four doors. The doors on the left are automated.” Other public spaces including museums are also exploring these options. These technologies help individuals understand where they are within a space, and also help them travel with confidence.

In seeking a better experience for blind or low vision passengers the Wellington airport has become the first in New Zealand to offer the use of the AIRA app for free. This app employs the camera on a smartphone to connect with a trained visual assistant, who provides information for the user describing where they are and where they’re going.

While these elements are still in the development stage, they are essential to universal design. Architects and designers need to take two-legged, full-sighted, full mobility out of the equation. How can they make this a usable and accessible street or building? Not just a compliant one. It’s about having respect for people, about believing in autonomy for the end user.

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams is the Content Developer and Social Media Administration for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.