Only one in ten blind people can read braille. An eye opening statistic by research group National Federation for the Blind. In 1960, it was estimated 50% of legally blind school-age children were able to read braille in the U.S. More recent studies show that percentage has dropped to about 10%. Although still a federal requirement for most signage in the built environment, braille may be on its way out.
Current regulations brought on by the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. have strict guidelines for the incorporation of braille and tactile characters in many types of signs. One question commonly asked is, “does any of this really help blind people?” In a recent interview by Dixie Graphics, an architectural signage fabricator in Nashville, TN, Matt Williams went right to the source and discussed this point.
“Yes is a good answer,” answered Dan Dillon, president of Middle Tennessee’s Council for the blind, and his wife Brenda, both blind. Dan then clarified a little further explaining that braille may be good for those who have learned it earlier in life. However, those losing vision later in life often do not take the time to learn braille. Also, tactile letters are great if you can recall what the letter looks like, but what about those who have never seen the letter before?
In wayfinding, legibility is key. Navigation requires the ability to read directions and locate visual markers—all common difficulties for the legally blind. In a previous post, I discussed how visual cues, or landmarks, help those of us who see recall memories of a place and record new stories in our brain about where we have been. This internal storytelling process is fundamental in wayfinding. For a blind person, location cues may be more tactile, auditory, or olfactory. So what is the wayfinding experience for a blind person? Does stopping to read the variety of braille messages in an environment make the task of finding a room much more complex than it should be?
Recent trends in digital user interface technology and navigation devices could change the way blind people navigate. The now ubiquitous window, icon, menu, pointer—or WIMP—based operating systems are giving way to the simplicity and intuitive nature of gesture control. A swipe of your finger on a touchscreen can move objects or switch applications. A single poke can start a command, while two pokes initiates another. All of this with little or no need for visual cues on the screen.
One beautifully plain example is Clear, a new to-do list application for the iPhone. It does away with elaborate menus and proprietary buttons in favor of a more cognitive interface. There are no visual cues to its functionality, yet it is highly intuitive. Delete items by swiping them off the list. Create new ones by dragging them down. Visual icons and menus are secondary to the experience of using the application with physical gestures. Possibly the simplest user interface in the market, and considered the future of user interaction. Applications like this are beginning to show up everywhere, and it is only a matter of time until gesture control becomes the new convention.
For a blind person, this could be a wayfinding game changer. Navigation and mapping applications that can be controlled with gestures, not menus and icons, could open an entire new world to those who have trouble seeing. Other innovations, like indoor location technology and personal navigation assistants—the folks at MIT seem to be leading the way—allow hand-held devices to not only track where you are, but aid you in which direction to go. Directions can be given visually, audibly, or even physically with vibration cues.
Braille is still the accepted standard for tactile text and will not disappear any time soon. Technology continues to usher in new standards that will make the environment more accessible for everybody, but there are obvious hurdles in changing the social norm. While signage will always be needed in the built environment, wayfinding is much more than reading signs, just as a story is much more than reading words on a page. Simple gesture controls for navigation devices could allow the visually-impaired to focus more on their surroundings, and less on what they are trying to read. For the blind, and all of us, the future is looking pretty good.
Susan Welker, AIA - 18 May 2013
Exactly! I did research during my Masters in Architecture about how more w...
Yen Cao - 15 May 2013
Way to go Brian! Congrats.
Air Monitoring - 15 May 2013
Really, its nice information, I read this whole and carefully. This covers ...
Don Wesley - 14 May 2013
Sara: What an honor, and so well deserved! You have always been a very sp...
Bob Farwell - 13 May 2013
Sara: Congratulations! I have always been impressed by your talents,work e...