9 Inclusive Strategies for the Visually Impaired

Taking care of the user’s needs is ingrained into us architects since day one. Making spaces accessible to people from all walks of life is important.  With the involvement of all the senses, the design elements which may ease the movement for individuals with visual impairments also uplift the experience for sighted individuals alike.

Most blind people can identify shapes and colours to some extent while only some have really limited sight. The goal is to ensure a safe, caring, and innovative environment with the usage of the right materials and principles. 

9 Inclusive Design Strategies for the Visually Impaired

  1. Tactile surfaces
  2. Appropriate Lighting conditions
  3. Bright colors and High Contrast
  4. Barrier-free circulation
  5. Acoustics and audible cues
  6. Signages
  7. Grab bars
  8. Olfactory cues
  9. Smart technology

1. Tactile Surfaces

Tactile surfaces are textured design elements with different patterns that can be felt by the visually impaired in order to navigate through spaces safely and can be found in both indoor and outdoor spaces throughout the world.

Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind – Salt Lake Center, by Jacoby Architects

Pavements with raised lines or domes can help, provided the acoustic feedback is sufficient when touched by a cane. Spaces can be treated with a unique material that transfers vibrations efficiently for the blind to identify people approaching them.

2. Appropriate Lighting conditions

Individuals who suffer from blindness may experience difficulties adjusting to varying levels of natural light during days that fluctuate between sunny and cloudy. Natural daylight is a major cause of glare and shadows in building interiors. Within a building, daylight should be evenly dispersed without creating glare or shadows.

Some Lighting Methods to Follow:

  • Tented Glass Windows
  • Translucent Wall Panel Systems
  • Exterior Awnings
  • Canopies for controlling glare and shadow
  • Matte Finished materials to avoid glare

Avoid placing windows at the end of the corridor to prevent backlight. Position of skylights and other sources of natural light in a way that prevents direct sunlight from entering interior spaces.

Diffused natural lighting in the classrooms. Hazelwood school Glasgow by Alan Dunlop Architects

In addition, special films that reduce solar and visible radiation can be installed on existing windows and glazing. Colourful light-emitting diode (LED) panels can be placed on the walls to serve as part of an intuitive wayfinding strategy.

3. Bright Colours and high contrast

In the field of architecture, colour and brightness contrast have a plethora of practical applications. They can be utilised to call attention to a door opening, emphasise signage, and highlight a clear path of travel. Additionally, they can assist in orientation.

Openshaw Education Center, Salt lake city, by-Jacoby-architects

For instance, an architect may choose to differentiate various levels or areas of a building using distinct colours. Nevertheless, it is crucial to maintain consistency and simplicity. It is recommended to maintain a contrast of at least 50% for the colour and brightness of important elements in the built environment. For signs and pictograms, the recommended contrast level is 70%.

4. Barrier-free spaces

The main path for circulation must be free of obstacles and if glass walls are present, elements that are contrasting must be included to avoid bumping into them. While designing, low walls and walls with punctures can be provided.

Openshaw Education Center, Salt lake city, by-Jacoby architects

5. Acoustics and audible cues

For users with blindness, echolocation can be used by making noises like snapping fingers or tapping a long cane to detect any reflected sound. This technique can aid in recognizing the size of a room, presence of corridors, or proximity of structural barriers like walls or poles.

The Light House for the blind and visually impaired, San Francisco by Mark Cavagnero-Associates.

The sound of a water feature or windchimes can act as auditory landmarks.Specific sounds can also provide information about the location of certain features like elevators. However, it’s important to design the space in a way that allows all of these sounds to be heard.

Acoustic ceiling tiles and carpets have the ability to absorb sound reflections. A good balance of sound absorption and sound reflective materials must be employed so that users can perceive sounds more clearly and enhance their overall spatial understanding. Furthermore, in public spaces like parks, audible pedestrian signals can be included to maximise comfort.

6. Signages

     Signages, especially in braille, promote independent living while enabling individuals to interact with public spaces and the built environment, thereby ensuring equal opportunities for the visually impaired.

UC Davies Campus Map, by Joshua Hori in collaboration with Touch Graphics, helps the students in wayfinding.

 The ability to quickly identify escape routes during emergencies or evacuation can be ensured using appropriate and easy to identify signages with safety instructions.The signages can issue cautionary alerts about staircases, escalators, bumpy surfaces, construction sites, and other impediments.

Overall spatial awareness can be enhanced when well-designed and consistent signages as they enable them to memorise and recall important landmarks and locations.

7. Handrails and grab bars

Grab bars offer a physical reference point and also assist in maintaining their balance and stability in the process of wayfinding. Accessibility in restrooms is crucial for blind users to feel independent and this can be achieved by providing grab bars near sinks, toilets and shower areas.

Provision of continuous handrails is essential on both sides of a staircase, as the blind people can gauge the height and depth of each step by gripping on to them. Along with this, the first and last step of each flight of staircase must be of contrasting surfaces. This way, the risk of tripping or falling can be mitigated.

Staircase in Brisbane, Australia by BSP Australia.

8. Olfactory cues

Landscape design features can create a stimulus and the user can register it as an olfactory landmark. For example, when a user passes by a landscape feature with flowering plants or the coffee machine on the way to the pantry , it tends to register in their minds vividly. It assists them in wayfinding.

8 kinds of Fragrant flowers and water channels help in wayfinding.

9. Smart Technology –

Greater control and autonomy in managing their inhabited spaces can be enhanced by Integrating assistive technologies like smart home automation, lighting, home security or audio guidance systems that operate on voice commands.

Real-time navigation using GPS enables smart devices with turn-by- turn directions that empower the visually impaired to explore and find specific locations easily.

Architects play a crucial role in designing spaces and buildings that are easily accessible to everyone, especially those who face difficulties in navigation. The implementation of good inclusive design that serves everyone works for the larger community at hand ultimately results in an impact for progress.

Read 10 Inclusive Strategies to Design for the Deaf

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