Technology is key to creating ‘most accessible neighbourhood’

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017 10:57am

The CNIB, Canada’s National Institute for the Blind, is turning to a combination of inclusive design and the latest technology to transform a small but popular section of one of Toronto’s busiest streets, into that country’s most accessible precinct, where blind and vision-impaired people can navigate easily and interact independently.

CNIB Beacon

CNIB Beacon - photo by Chris Young of the Canadian Press

The CNIB institute is preparing to roll out 200 small (7x7cm) 'Beacons' into stores and restaurants (at no charge to each business) in the neighbourhood, which will provide vision-impaired customers with practical information on the premises they enter.

By opening the BlindSquare GPS app (a popular accessible navigation application for indoors and outdoors), the user can use their mobile phone to easily identify business entrances on the footpath, then find their way to various features within each location once they get inside.

The beacons are being customised for each business, with some restaurants for example, indicating they want to communicate the location of tables, bathrooms and staircases, while retail stores are more focussed on ensuring that vision-impaired customers get a floorplan map and can quickly locate cash registers, major display areas, or changing rooms.

Inclusive design experts have praised the project, but advise that true accessibility involves designing for a range of abilities and that more needs to be done if the area is to truly live up to the goal of being the ‘most accessible’ neighbourhood.

Not-for-profit digital accessibility and inclusion advocates, Media Access Australia, exist to ensure that digital accessibility is given the same attention as physical accessibility. As the digital landscape is as vital to navigate as the physical landscape, and as the line between the physical and the augmented continues to blur, this is becoming an increasingly important issue.

The charity believes that it is vital for businesses and government not to lose sight of the bigger picture of true accessibility, which involves catering to a wide spectrum of needs.

Thea Kurdi, of Canadian accessibility consultants DesignAble, was reported by Canadian Press as calling this project “exciting and innovative,” adding “most conversations about building design tend to focus on wheelchair users rather than other disabled demographics.”

Yet Ms Kurdi believes that true inclusive design involves accommodating users ranging in age from infants to seniors, whose abilities and needs will vary greatly over their lifetimes.

“Technology can be a valuable tool in an inclusive design project, but it should not be viewed as the entire solution,” she said, and maintains that even simple tweaks to interior spaces can also improve accessibility for all.

More information on the ‘Most Accessible Neighbourhood’ project is available from the CNIB website.


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