Accessible design is mostly a consideration of more affluent or developed countries. Indeed most of the examples used on this site pull from design or technology solutions being applied in Canada, Australia, United States, Europe and a few of the larger cities across Asia. These countries along with their regions and local authorities have the benefit of building upon an established culture of planning, regulation and notion of equity in access to services.
When you begin to venture outside of these countries the story begins to change. How does a person with low vision or blindness cope in a potentially less planned or controlled environment?
A few months ago I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks traveling through Vietnam, a country full of rich history, friendly people and amazing food! It also has plenty of scooters, few traffic signals, limited signage and the organic flow to cities that is common to developing countries. There is an electric combination of excitement and chaos to watching the flow of traffic through the streets. Scooters are the dominant form of transportation filling both the streets and sidewalks.... where sidewalks even exist. Walking through the streets can be an adventure. A person with full sight will find this experience intimidating, possibly frustrating and even maybe exciting as there is a logic to the flow once you learn the norms of the road: walk slowly, purposely forward and the traffic will flow around you.
As someone with low vision but functional sight this environment was manageable but quite fatiguing as the concentration to keep track of the constant intensity results in incredible eye strain. Navigating without sight entirely could be a whole other challenge. This left me with two questions: how do locals with low or no vision cope and how would a blind or low sighted person traveling from abroad adapt to this environment?
Through my time in Vietnam I never encountered someone with a familiar white cane like we have in North America so it is hard to say exactly how the locals navigate. There are a few non-profit agencies in Vietnam who provide support to people with blindness so some resources are available to integrate them into society: at least in urban areas. I can only speculate that the type of day-to-day independence that is more readily available in developed countries is very different. Urban environments have limited supports for navigation while the outer suburbs are designed to be accessed by vehicle. Whether traveling from abroad or as a local, support from a companion is advised.
That said there were signs of efforts being made to change the urban environment to include aspects of accessible design. This was more evident in the south than in the north. Saigon specifically is beginning to include textures, colours and ramps in new development. Connectivity is not complete so you may not be able to rely on the design environment along a full path of travel. Additionally, scooters still have full reign in their use of the road and sidewalk for parking. This presents a cultural challenge for the country to consider.
In the coming years cities like Saigon and Hanoi will need to consider how to integrate the dominant forms of transportation with providing a welcoming urban environment that is safe and accessible.
Trained in town planning, an avid traveler and legally blind myself I write on issues and opportunities is see along my travels that could improve our cities from a visual perspective.
Visually Accessible Cities is the creation of Devin Causley, a town planner by training who has also lived with low vision since birth. This unique combination along with insights from extensive travels around the world provide perspective on how cities can be built better to engage those of us with limited or no sight. Cities that are more visually accessible will ultimately be more livable for everyone.