The principle of accessible design is shown through designing for the blind and visually handicapped. Universal design architects recognize that the demands of the blind and the sighted are not mutually exclusive. For example, architects have argued for orienting a structure to give ideal light and ventilation since ancient Roman times, all the way up to architecture of the current times.

Asking oneself how to perceive other senses when composing a place for the blind is an important part of creating a space for the blind. It entails regaining all of the feelings that have been dampened by vision’s dominance. In that regard, odour has a spatial component and sound has a life of its own.

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Visually impaired women crossing the road with help_©

‘Designing these structures makes us realize how oblivious we are to other senses and how restricted our awareness is.’

What do blind people see?

Several blind persons have some eyesight. There are a variety of components that may be used in designs for the blind or visually impaired to improve accessibility.

  1. Those with restricted eyesight might benefit from bright colours and changes in lighting.
  2. Entryways and vestibules can be incorporated into all architectural designs to assist the eyes to adjust to changes in lighting.
  3. Tactile cues, such as changing floor and sidewalk textures, as well as temperature variations, can serve as markers for those who are blind.
  4. A unique façade can assist in determining a home’s location without the need to count and keep track.
  5. For persons who don’t have access to visual signals, sound is crucial.
  6. Intelligent personal assistants are already being incorporated into houses, allowing them to assist residents with a variety of activities.

Incorporating tactility and technology

While no city can claim to be the ultimate example of universal design, cities are making progress to accommodate people with impairments. Individuals who are “seriously hampered in their freedom of movement by road” in Germany are entitled to free public transit. (Seehotel Rheinsberg, a luxury hotel designed specifically for individuals with impairments, is located in Germany. It is the country’s largest barrier-free hotel, including wheelchair-accessible rooms, entertainment facilities, and a front desk.)

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Colored tactile pavers, like those used on Chicago’s ‘L’ platforms, tell individuals with visual impairments where to walk and how to walk_©

Tactile paving is another approach to assist visually impaired people. These textured pavement slabs are made in Japan and give underfoot information at pedestrian crossings and other high-traffic locations (e.g. railway platforms). The tactile indications convey things like “You’re approaching a curb cut,” “There’s a stairway ahead,” and “Wait here for the train” to persons with poor vision. Tactile paving stones are commonly available in high-contrast colours and may also be used to indicate travel direction.

Bluetooth technology is being explored in many public settings, including museums. The Southern Cross Railway Station in Melbourne, Australia, is undergoing a test initiative that is changing how people traverse the station. Users get auditory signals via their cell phones, thanks to Bluetooth and BlindSquare – a free GPS software. “Approaching four doors,” says the navigation system, which also gives directions and real-time information. “The automatic doors on the left are the ones you’re looking for.” Individuals can use these technologies to understand where they are in space and to move safely.

Better architecture

Chris Downey, a blind architect, pushes for navigation and other essential aids for the blind. When Downey lost his sight unexpectedly in 2008, a social worker counselled him on “employment options”. Downey, on the other hand, chose not to leave the profession and instead founded Architecture for the Blind. Today, he uses his background as an architect to assist in the creation of surroundings that are enjoyable for both persons with visual impairments and those who are normally sighted.

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After Chris Downey lost his sight in 2008, he continued to practice architecture. Today, he’s a consultant on designs for the blind and visually impaired, as well as public facilities_©

“Great architecture for the blind and visually challenged is just like great architecture for everyone else, only better. It appears and performs the same, but it provides a deeper and better sensory experience.” – Chris Downey

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Architect Chris Downey worked with SmithGroup and the Design Partnership on the design of the VA Polytrauma Center in Palo Alto, California, after losing his own eyesight_©SmithGroup –

The Duke University Eye Center Clinic, the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco, and the Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Center are among Downey’s initiatives. He was also a consultant on the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, a multimodal transit station with a 5.4-acre rooftop park and a 118-foot-tall “light column” in the Grand Hall. The transit center, like all of Downey’s work, incorporates navigation by carefully considering tactility, touch, scent, sound, temperature, and technology.

Focus on accessibility

The capacity to use public transit — and to do so safely – is an important aspect of universal design. Some groups are working on programs that help the blind to plan ahead of time to alleviate the dread of traversing congested metropolitan streets. Dr. Joshua Miele, a scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, has teamed up with LightHouse, a charity for the blind that Downey is on the board of. They collaborated to generate easily accessible maps of every BART station. Individuals may plan a route of travel using the maps, which are tactile, have a big font, and have an audio component.

While these design components aren’t currently commonplace, they are critical to universal design.

Before traveling to one of San Francisco’s BART stations, an individual can orient themselves using an accessible map. The maps, created by Dr. Joshua Miele and Lighthouse, help eliminate the anxiety that comes from traveling to a new place_©

Rajita Jain is an architect by profession who engages with the dynamics of urban spaces and the people. She aims at developing ways of amalgamating cultural and traditional beliefs with modern day technology to give the urban fabric a vernacular sensitivity.