Imagine arriving at an unfamiliar school building for the first time. You need to navigate a complex maze of rooms, corridors, stairwells, and spaces to find the classroom or office that is your final destination—all in a concentrated period of time.
Now imagine you are blind. Unlike most users of this building, you can’t rely on traditional environmental graphics, such as signs, maps, or directories, to get a sense of the size and configuration of this new place. And your audible GPS doesn’t work the moment you enter the building, because the building itself blocks access to the GPS signal. While GPS for the blind and visually impaired is an amazing breakthrough that verbally identifies landmarks and constructs outdoor walking routes, the “last mile” problem means that complete travel independence may still not be possible. So you will have to resort to asking for help to read signs from a sighted stranger, or worse, you may need to request physical guidance, ruining the feeling of independence granted by successfully navigating to the building entrance on your own. To address this “last-mile” problem, developers at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA) at the University at Buffalo and Touch Graphics, Inc. designed, fabricated, installed, and evaluated a series of touch-responsive talking models for visually impaired travelers. The interactive models were placed in three locations frequented by blind staff and visitors: the Technology Center, Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton, Mass.; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind; and Grousbeck Center, Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. Each talking map presents the spatial layout of its immediate surroundings in a multi-sensory format that is usable by everyone, with a particular emphasis on the needs of the blind. The prototype models and maps represent spaces as 3D
buildings in a landscape (for a campus), or as a raised-line and textured surface (for a building interior). In each case, forms were generalized to focus on only those features that are relevant to wayfinding and orientation, with all superfluous information omitted for tactile clarity and legibility. The models are touch responsive; that is, as you explore them with your hands and fingers, they announce the names of the thing you are touching followed by a description of activities occurring at each place and, finally, spoken directions for walking to that place. By explaining the configuration of the building or campus, the systems are intended to make it possible for a determined independent blind traveler to identify and travel to any location. The models strive to be appealing and user-friendly for everyone, including those with other disabilities, or no disability, without compromising accessibility. The requirements of accessibility regulations are minimal. For example, they only require that the number on a room sign be tactile and in Braille. Nothing about the room is required to be understandable by people who cannot read signs visually. Moreover, there are no requirements to provide information about the plan of a building or campus or directions from one place to another. Accessibility regulations give no guidance to designers for going beyond the minimum requirements. The Goals of Universal Design provide product developers with a simple checklist of outcomes that can help them create a higher level of accessibility and usability for all building users. As the population becomes familiar with navigational aids like GPS devices, the business case for universal design applications that exceed accessibility regulations becomes stronger because building users will have higher expectations. Moreover, the aging of the population will drive the market for increased usability. We may soon see a movement to certify universally designed products and environments through a point system like LEED certification for green buildings.
Voice GPS has revolutionized independent travel for the blind. But GPS stops working as soon as you are indoors.
eg magazine — 41
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