accessible cities / equitable spaces / human element / human-centered design / public realm / visual impairment

The most important element is the human element : More inclusive design for the visually impaired

Creating more equitable spaces for people of varying ages, abilities, and backgrounds can sometimes seem like a daunting task. How can a variety of needs be met through the planning process, and what approach should be taken to make sure the highest number of people are provided the greatest level of accessibility? It’s a topic we covered late in 2021 on Mobycon Academy with guest Maya Levi, who navigates her city on a mobility scooter. Her experience provided necessary context for planning with someone with a disability in mind and left us wanting to learn more. Specifically, if low-car, cycling- and walking-focused planning is good for those with mobility challenges, how does it fair for those living with a visual impairment?

Intersection in delft

One of the keys to creating more equitable planning is learning from those working with cities to meet these needs. We invited Guus Janssen, an accessibility advisor with the Accessibility Foundation in the Netherlands, to speak about his work and what cities can do and have done to make cities work better for those with sight impairments. As he pointed out in the Mobycon Academy session Accessible Cities: Visual impairment and the experience of the city, he cannot speak for the visually impaired, as he himself is not. However, through his work, and with coordination with individuals in the community, he advocates for taking a meaningful approach to improving their access to the city. The webinar was an insightful look at the nuanced ways we need to think about how people with limited visibility move through the public realm.

Following the webinar, I asked Guus to share five details that were an important place to start when planning and designing with the visually impaired in mind.

When thinking about how to design for the experience of the city for someone with a visual impairment, what should be the first consideration?

Get a feeling for the importance of inclusive design. Spend some time with people who are visually impaired and talk to someone who knows how people with visually impairments move through a city. In doing this, you’ll learn that it’s not a matter of one solution fixing everything, but rather a multifaceted design approach that should be taken in consideration. The human eye is complex, and therefore challenges can occur at every level. This often means each case requires something different to meet an individual’s needs. Putting that in more general terms, the main consideration is that for some you’ll be designing for people who maintain some form of vision – where contrasting colours are vital – and using a more tactile approach for people who don’t rely on vision at all.   

Q2 – What are some key design elements that should be taken into account to create a more inclusive public realm?

First of all, take some time to think of what the experience must be like to navigate a route when you can’t see. For a lot of people it would be pretty terrifying. Therefore, creating zones in which people who are walking feel safe, they don’t encounter too many obstacles, and they have a sense of orientation by tactile and visual means helps tremendously! 

If you can connect these zones in a safe way, you begin to see routes, or a network. When there is an intersection, ask yourself, “Am I adding design features that help people navigate this crossing?” Like a traffic light for instance. If so, you then ask yourself, “If I need to change the treatment to make it safer for people without impairments, why shouldn’t I also add more to help a more vulnerable group?”  

Q3 – How important is sound in creating a more inclusive environment?

Sound is an important but difficult subject. It’s very hard to say when standard norms around sound have a positive or a negative impact in creating an inclusive environment. Basically, the same sound can make a space more inclusive for one person when it makes it less inclusive for another person. Taking that into consideration, I probably wouldn’t make big claims to a client on specific sounds. Sound is more then we just consciously notice. 

For people who are visually impaired, relying on sound can be helpful. For instance, if you were blindfolded and were walking on a street besides a wall, would you be able to tell when the wall ends? You probably would. Change in the echo of your footsteps, the noise the wind is making, and so on, would become an auditory clue, and there are people who have perfected this to an art. It’s called echolocation and it’s a very interesting subject to read more about. However, for some, relying solely on sound for navigation can become very exhausting. This of your last phone call where there was a lot of background noise, and you had to listen carefully for all the important details. Therefore, it’s important to consider sound in combination with contrast and tactile elements as well. 

When designing a more inclusive public space, just remember that a very big change in sound can be a point of orientation.

Q4 – How important is access to public transportation to the mobility of someone with a visual impairment?

At some point in the progression of a visually impairment, driving a car is no longer an option. From this moment, you must rely on public transport for you longer distance mobility if you want to maintain independence. Think of all the things in life that start with mobility! Getting to family, to the birthday party of a friend, to work, school or maybe a date. Mobility is a part of life that is often taken for granted.  

Having an accessible route between public transport stops and points of interest – cultural, employment, health institutions, education – should be a very basic and logical step when considering the effect it has on people’s lives.  

Q5 – If someone only remembers one thing about designing for the mobility of the visually impaired, what is the most important element to consider?

As an expert without a visually impaired, I can’t speak for people who are visually impaired, I can only advocate for them. But I will always remember a conversation I had with a very nice visually impaired gentlemen I met. He told me: “I’m okay with my walks taking more time than yours. I’m okay with doing more planning before I leave my house. I’m okay doing training with my cane. What I can’t stand is when things are made or designed in a way it makes it impossible for me. Then I feel left out.”

It was an excellent reminder that the most important element is the human element.

If you have questions for Guus and would like to contact him, you can reach him here. If you are interested in learning how you can integrate more inclusive design into your project, or create a more inclusive engagement with the visually impaired community, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss you needs.

Watch the full Mobycon Academy session with Guus Janssen (YouTube link).

Melissa Bruntlett

‘I believe that to create cities that work for every one, you have to tell a great story. Promoting multi-modal transportation to a mainstream audience means sharing the stories of the people who benefit from making communities more walkable and bikeable, and showing what is possible if we rethink the way we design our streets and public spaces. I strive to inspire people to create places where children can flourish, and where the simple act of moving through their city is a safe, simple, and enjoyable act.’

Communications and Engagement Advisor