A City for the Blind

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

September 18, 2014
Reading the City as a Blind Person
Chris Downey, Architect and Georgina Kleege, Department of English

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Downey and Kleege spoke on their experiences navigating cities as a blind person, with perspectives shaped by their professional backgrounds.

By Swetha Vijayakumar

The story that instinctively comes to mind when thinking of blind people navigating spaces is the tale of the five blind men and an elephant. But Chris Downey's and Georgina Kleege's fascinating presentation on ‘Reading Cities as a Blind Person’ provided vital information on understanding how completely false the tale is in today’s society.

Downey’s presentation began in a captivating way. His audio clip was instrumental in demonstrating how sighted people are often “frontally oriented” and fail to notice a multi-sensory experience around them. Using the audio clues in the clip Downey explained the role of a cane in navigating a city. It is interesting to learn how a cane becomes an extension of the arm and aids in touching the city and its streets, and different techniques – tapping and dragging – of using the cane. Downey also addressed the myth that not all visually impaired people are completely blind, and that some have a perception of light from shade. They can be classified as:

  • Fully Visually Impaired:
    Total blindness is the inability to tell light from dark, or the total inability to see.
  • Partially Visually Impaired:
    Visual impairment or low vision is a severe reduction in vision that cannot be corrected with standard glasses or contact lenses and reduces a person's ability to function at certain or all tasks
  • Visually Impaired at a Later Age:
    These are people who lose sight at a later age in life due to accidents or illness. It is particularly difficult for these individuals to develop their senses later in life.

While Downey, as lecturer of architecture and a practicing architect, talked about cities and spaces, Kleege, a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s English Department, made key observations on reading texts and images. She noted that textual reading is a linear activity which proceeds either from side to side or from the top to bottom. She contrasted it with reading images, which is like breathing in a gulp of air all at once. Kleege’s anecdote about asking for directions from the blind brought to mind my experiences and interactions with blind children and their teachers in the process of writing my undergraduate thesis. The very first time I was visiting a school for the blind, I had called in to get directions. The person on the other end gave me precise directions noting the locations of bakeries, bus stops, and broken pavements. Only when I reached the school did I get to know that the person who gave directions on the phone was a blind student. Working at a school for the visually impaired for my thesis has made me acutely aware of the multi-sensory experiences of the blind. I recognize the potential of using tactile paintings, murals, and plants with high olfactory quotients both inside and outside of buildings to make navigating spaces a better experience for the blind.

I am extremely interested in exploring more about the non-visual aids that can be used not only in the scale of the cities, but also in the interior spaces of buildings. I am also curious to know about the ways images like plans and facades can be produced so that they can be easily read by the blind.

Downey’s proposal of designing a city for the blind is fascinating. He noted that if all the blind people in the US are put together in a city it would become the 3rd largest city in the US. I believe that architecture that considers non-visual perceptions will be more pleasing than the ones based solely on aesthetic demands, and that the architectural language should be made up of spatial, textural, and sensory verses.

Swetha Vijayakumar is a PhD student studying the History of Architecture and Urbanism.