The world has changed considerably over the past two decades when it comes to visual accessibility. The introduction of the internet, smart phones and computers alone have radically boosted mainstream tools that aid in making our everyday environment accessible for all.
In considering my own experience in coping with low vision I observe that I had the unique perspective of experiencing two eras of how the world approaches visual accessibility - the analogue and the digital.
The analogue of accessibility came before computers and internet. It involved carbon copy paper and helpful classmates for schoolwork, dome magnifiers and closed circuit televisions for reading, binoculars to read distant signs, personal assistants for navigation, while audio books came on special cassettes produced by volunteers at dedicated libraries. Efforts to standardize colors, signage and identifiers were only just beginning while actions to improve accessible surfaces with ramps or domes had not even reached Canada. In general, this era was heavily reliant on the support of others to enable daily life of someone needing visual assistance.
Many of these tools continue to exist in the new digital world however they are now complemented by advancements in technology. Now it is not just that there is new technology, clever people have been inventing solutions to help people with accessibility needs for over a century. A key difference is that most of the newer inventions benefit broader society along with those that assist people requiring visual assistance. Many of these technologies also connect or communicate with each other versus serving only a single purpose.
Today the utility of a smart phone in your pocket and the many applications that have been developed as companions integrate tools that support accessibility. Smart phone applications that might have once taken a full size computer or team of people now provide ready to use OCR scanning and character recognition for reading of books or labels, photographic recognition of objects, navigation aids, audio guides and many more. They integrate cameras for use in reading or magnification of signs along with the general comfort that human assistance is only a call away without the hassle of finding a pay phone. Digital content including audio books or e-books is now produced on mass meaning that people with low vision have more content available and accessible on demand. A smart phone of course is only one simple example.
Consider now what this means for developing visually accessible cities.
Navigation is Getting Easier!
When I first began exploring my city and later traveling abroad technology was very limited. I navigated with a paper map, spent a lot time searching for street signs, reading tiny print in guidebooks and hoped that the bus actually followed the paper schedule I had in hand! Today I have a digital guidebook in my pocket that can be magnified to any size that I need. Google has mapped the world’s streets and transit systems have real time information on most of that map.
Infrastructure can Respond to Users
Cities are rapidly becoming smarter, integrating technologies that instantly share information about people or functions of the city – how many cars are moving down a street or crossing signals timed according to rush hour periods. Similarly technologies can be applied to improve accessibility. Designer Ross Atkin provides some examples of how responsive street furniture shifts a smart city to become a clever city enabling people to experience their environment.
The digital era now sees cities blending their fixed infrastructure and digital solutions alongside human support services. None of these three can meet the full need of providing a visually accessible city on its own nor can any of them be eliminated. Our infrastructure needs to be adapted with standardized signs, fonts, curb cuts, textures and colors. Digital technologies need to be employed that can provide descriptive texts of key landmarks and wayfinding solutions integrated with the fixed infrastructure. Human support services will remain critical. Organizations like the CNIB and others dedicated to providing support for those with accessibility are needed to provide services, and raise awareness.
More Integration and Less Segregation
The transition from an analogue to digital era is not only a change in technology but has been, and will continue to be, a change in mindset. It is a process of mainstreaming accessibility and those in need of accommodation. Providing custom supports and accommodation where needed yet whenever possible adapting the everyday to include people with an accessible need. Technology has helped this process alongside the efforts of many advocates who worked for decades to encourage the inclusion of people with accessible needs into contemporary classrooms and workplaces.
Technologies Come with Strain
Now you would think this era of instant information, digital interfaces and smart technologies would be an overwhelmingly positive change however it does come with negative impacts. The most obvious to the general public can be to the wallet. These new devices and the services to support them such as cellular data, internet and other service packages come with a price tag. Concurrently those in most need of these assistive technologies are lower income and thus may find their cost a barrier to access.
Our digital ear is probably best defined by the abundance of screens that we now face every day. Computer monitors, televisions, smart phones, even crossing signals. Society now spends a considerable amount of time staring into the bring lights of these devices for long periods of time. This behavior amplifies eye strain. For someone already experiencing vision loss or impairment this can lead to faster eye fatigue, general strain or other discomfort. Researchers and technology developers should continue to look at ways to ease eye strain from our digital devices.
A time of rapid change: for accessibility and for our cities.
The last ten years alone have seen an explosion of digital solutions helping people meet their visual needs in reading, navigation and recognition. Infrastructure is being adapted and in many cases connected to the digital solutions in our pocket. Coordination should be encouraged between public and private interests to ensure opportunities to connect smart, accessible solutions with everyday infrastructure are made broadly enabling out cities to evolve.
With such a rapid pace of change it will be imperative that the traditional support services for people with accessible needs continue to have the resources to assist people in need with these technologies. Teachers, employers and support organizations need to know about new technologies, applications and services. A digital era is only useful if people know what it offers and how to make use of what is available.
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.