Designing with the Blind in Mind

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 Robyn Perry

Those who attended Georgina Kleege and Chris Downey’s talk on reading cities without sight received a rare gift on Thursday, September 18th. I left with the impression that I am the one whose faculties are impaired when I power down a city sidewalk. Maybe it is because Georgina is a lecturer of literature, but Chris’s story had this effect on me too: their reading of cities and what it’s like to navigate them had an almost Amelie-quality to it (that is, the film Amelie), because their accounts reminded me of all the daily things I ignore, but perhaps I do to my own detriment. Particularly intriguing was Georgina's observation that many sighted people are frontally oriented, whereas the blind usually operate within a radius of awareness that extends above and behind them, as well as in front of them. I felt like I could learn to love the nature of cities all over again if I could follow around a blind person for a week or even a day.

I was inspired by the concept of the City of/for the Blind. Given Chris and Georgina’s considerations about designing more hospitable urban environments, it seems that most pedestrians would thrive in such a place. When asked if they could redesign city features to work better with impaired vision, they drew our attention to urban features I’d never thought about, but could make a huge difference in terms of better accessibility/habitability.

Screenshot from Chris Downey’s TED talk

For example, Chris’s explanation of his cane’s communication about his movement through space made me wonder if carpet, as in hotel lobbies, is an impediment to spatial understanding for those who rely on echoes to navigate. I found it surprising that the autonomy that well-designed cities enable the blind makes them better places to live in than rural areas. I grew up in a place in California where most people get personal vehicles the minute they turn 16 because walking anywhere is both unthinkable and impractical. Are cities more hospitable to the blind? Georgina’s account of Columbus, even that a city, suggests that this might be the case. I also wonder about the kind of art that vision-impaired people might most enjoy. Are there public art pieces designed with the blind in mind? What if curbs had alternating designs to help with navigation?

What’s particularly interesting about most of their suggestions is that they’re, at best huge improvements for people of all abilities and, at worst, something most sighted people would find mildly beneficial or perhaps neutral. Based on their suggestions, I am curious to explore the idea that designing for people who have stricter requirements may generally benefit everyone else as well.

Imagine a city with more open doors to bustling businesses, emitting both informative and pleasant smells and sounds, more music being piped out of stores, more encouragement for interesting soundscapes, more public “front stoops” like benches flanking frequented public areas, wider sidewalks with a smooth dividing lane in the middle, and more asymmetrical fountains (or ones that make different sounds depending on which direction one faces away from them). Not that we should have to make a strong case for "designing with the blind in mind,” in Chris’s words, but a strong case is there nonetheless. It would make better cities for pedestrians of all abilities.

Robyn Perry is a candidate for the Master of Information and Management Systems at the UC Berkeley School of Information.