There are currently 1.8 million people with sight loss in the UK, with this figure projected to rise to four million by 2050. According to research by British Gas and the RNIB, the majority of these people live a marginalised existence isolated from their communities. A major cause of this isolation is the difficulty of moving around independently, with 63 per cent of those suffering sight loss needing help to get out and about.
The difference that a more accessible built environment would make to these people’s quality of life presents a strong moral argument for making improvements. If this is not enough, a growing body of evidence on the costs of isolation and inactivity to the health and social care systems also presents a strong economic case.
Sight loss affects people in many different ways. The way someone navigates depends on a combination of medical and biographical factors. Because of this, there is not one set of features or requirements that make a street or public space easy to use for all those sufferring sight loss. Successful designs acknowledge this variety and provide the different kinds of help different people will find useful.
In recent years, there has been a growth in number of people with sight loss who are keen to use digital tools to help them navigate. Navigational information provided through smartphones, triggered by bluetooth beacons, can be detailed and specific in ways that can never be achieved with physical features.
The challenge lies in how the beacon infrastructure is integrated into the physical environment and, most importantly, who is responsible for creating and maintaining the information it delivers. If we can crack these two issues, providing a nationally uniform system of ‘digital audio signage’ is within our reach.
If we are going to build this system, roadworks would be a good place to start. One of the few commonalities across the sight loss community is the increased extent to which they rely on mental maps of an area to navigate. Predictability is essential for confidence, and it can be wrecked by unexpected changes. Roadworks are a key source of unpredictability, so providing high quality digital information about their presence and configuration can make a disproportionate positive impact.
As well as identifying infrastructure to people, bluetooth can identify people to infrastructure. Once that infrastructure knows who is present and what they need it can automatically reconfigure to better meet those needs.
So, for example, a person with sight loss might approach a crossing. Because local residents object to the incessant beeping, the audio signals on the crossing are usually switched off. When the crossing detects the presence of someone who could benefit from audio signals, they are re-activated helping that person to both locate the crossing and know when to cross.
Despite all this progress, we must avoid viewing digital technology as a silver bullet that will magically fix all the issues that people with sight loss face travelling independently. We should see digital information as an additional layer that augments rather than replaces information provided by other design features, like tactile paving or tonal contrast. We still need to work on delivering these features consistently and in ways that do not disadvantage other street users.
Ross Atkin is a designer and engineer. Ross Atkin Associates works primarily, though not exclusively, on projects using design and technology to meet the needs of older and disabled people.